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Early math knowledge related to later achievement

Giving a child feedback during problem solving may do more harm than good, according to a new Vanderbilt study (iStock)
Early math skills inform later achievement, according to a new Vanderbilt study. (iStock)

A longitudinal study conducted by Vanderbilt has found that children’s math knowledge in preschool is related to their later achievement—but not all types of math knowledge were related equally.

The findings suggest that educators and school administrators should consider which areas of math study they shift attention to as they develop curricula for the early years.

Rittle-Johnson (Vanderbilt)
Rittle-Johnson (Vanderbilt)

“Counting, calculating, and understanding written numbers already get a lot of attention from teachers and parents, for good reasons,” said Bethany Rittle-Johnson, professor of psychology and human development at Vanderbilt’s Peabody College of education and human development, who led the study. “However, comparing quantities may merit more attention in preschool, and patterning knowledge may merit more attention in both preschool and the early elementary grades.”

Common Core content standards for school math include shape but not patterning knowledge, and they focus little on comparing quantities. Since patterning skills in the early years predicted math achievement in fifth grade in this study, Rittle-Johnson and her co-authors suggest that teachers and parents engage young children in activities that help them find, extend and discuss predictable sequences in objects (patterns) and compare quantities, without needing to count, such as estimating who has more pennies or more Halloween candy.

A next important step will be to systematically vary how much of this content young children receive and look at their math achievement over time.

More about the study

The study followed 517 low-income children from ages 4 to 11. When the children were in the last year of preschool and near the end of first grade, researchers tested general skills (including self-regulated behavior, work-related skills, and reading) and six math skills (patterning, counting objects, comparing quantities, understanding written numbers, calculating, and understanding shapes).

When the children were at the end of fifth grade, researchers tested a range of math knowledge, including knowledge about numbers, algebra, and geometry. The aim of the study was to determine whether children’s math skills at ages 4 and 5 predicted their math achievement at age 11.

The results suggest that preschool math skills supported first-grade math skills, which in turn supported fifth-grade math knowledge. In preschool, children’s skills in patterning, comparing quantities and counting objects were stronger predictors of their math achievement in fifth grade than other skills, the study found. By first grade, patterning remained important, and understanding written numbers and calculating emerged as important predictors of later achievement.

“Our findings extend those of other studies that have focused on fewer math skills over shorter periods of time and that looked at children from more advantaged homes,” explains Emily R. Fyfe, assistant professor of psychology at Indiana University, who was part of the study when she was a graduate student at Vanderbilt University. “This suggests that children from low-income homes develop math knowledge in ways similar to children from more-advantaged homes, and it supports a more comprehensive understanding of the trajectory of math development from the early years to the later years.”

Dale Farran, Antonio and Anita Gotto Professor of Teaching and Learning, is a collaborator on the study.

Read the article, Early Math Trajectories: Low-Income Children’s Mathematics Knowledge From Age 4 to 11, in the journal Child Development.

This research was supported by the Institute of Education Sciences, U.S. Department of Education; the Heising-Simons Foundation; and the National Science Foundation.

Learn more about Rittle-Johnson’s pattern research: Common Core math should include ‘pattern abstraction’

Watch a video about Bethany Rittle-Johnson.