Preschool teachers who use numbers in their everyday speech may aid their students' math abilities, according to new research published in January's Developmental Psychology (Vol. 42, No. 1). Even seemingly trivial instances of "math talk," such as saying "You two get your coats," instead of "You guys get your coats," may be related to improvement in four- and five-year-olds' math skills, says study author Raquel Klibanoff, PhD, who conducted the research as a postdoctoral fellow at the University of Chicago.
Klibanoff and her co-authors attached microphones to 26 preschool teachers' lapels and recorded their speech during a randomly selected hour of class instruction, including "circle time," in which the teacher gathered the class for a story or games. Although the teachers typically did not lead planned math activities during the recorded hour, many incorporated counting and even calculation into their speech. For instance, one teacher asked the students to figure out how many of their 21 classmates were present after noting one was absent that day.
The researchers assessed the children's math skills at the beginning and the end of the school year. For example, the researchers told the children to point to the card with the numeral "2" on it, and also asked them to solve simple word problems involving addition.
Those students who were in classrooms where the teachers used many instances of math talk tended to improve more over the course of the school year than students who were less exposed to math vocabulary, the researchers found. What's more, the improvements were unrelated to general teacher quality, the complexity of the teachers' sentence structure or student socioeconomic status.
Other mediating factors may be at work in this correlational finding, says Klibanoff. But she, for one, has been more conscientious about using math talk with her 4-year-old son since conducting the study, she says.
"All the parenting magazines and books suggest the same thing: Work math into your daily activities. Now we have shown there really is a connection there," says Klibanoff. "I want to cheer [caregivers] on, to keep doing what they have been doing all along, and hopefully inspire them to do it even more."