Research News

Vanderbilt-led tutoring program promotes patterning skills in preschool students

Researchers from Peabody College have developed a new tutoring protocol to help preschoolers better recognize patterns, which is a key skill in mathematics. The research team, led by Bethany Rittle-Johnson, Anita S. and Antonio M. Gotto Chair in Child Development, and Erica Zippert, post-doctoral scholar, implemented a five-session tutoring initiative that showed promise for improving repeated patterning knowledge.

Erica Zippert and Bethany Rittle-Johnson (Vanderbilt University)

“We sought to establish a causal relationship between pattern knowledge in preschool students and mathematics and numeracy knowledge, since only a correlational relationship was established in prior work,” Zippert said. “The first step in being able to make these causal claims is to develop activities to successfully improve patterning knowledge.”

The researchers engaged with 211 students, aged 4 and 5 years old, from 12 preschools. All participants completed a patterning assessment at the beginning of the program, and baseline scores were calculated for each student. From there, students were assigned to one of three groups—patterning+numeracy, literacy+numeracy or the control group. The researchers leading the patterning+numeracy groups and the literacy+numeracy groups implemented the tutoring for five sessions.

An example of an AABB, or a 2-2 pattern. The part that repeats (2 yellow squares and 2 red squares) is the pattern unit.

The tutoring exercises for the patterning+numeracy groups provided targeted support in patterning, which included copying and extending model patterns. Moreover, students in the program were taught to duplicate model patterns using different materials (also called abstracting patterns), to talk about patterns using numbers (“this is a 2-1 pattern”), and to identify the repeating unit in a series. Children also received tutoring in numeracy concepts—labeling how many objects are in sets both before and after adding and subtracting a single object from those sets. Children in the literacy+numeracy group received tutoring in important concepts of language and reading in addition to tutoring in the same numeracy concepts as the other training group. The children in the control group received regular classroom instruction.

The researchers found that students in the patterning+numeracy tutoring program performed significantly better on a measure of patterning knowledge after the tutoring was completed than the other two groups, although the patterning+numeracy group did not have higher post-tutoring performance than the other groups in measures of numeracy or mathematics knowledge.

“Patterning knowledge is thought to be foundational for mathematics because it may help children figure out the rules for how numbers work,” Zippert said. “We were excited to see that preschool students were able to expand their knowledge of patterns beyond simply copying and extending model patterns, advancing to abstracting them and talking about their unit of repeat as well.” The researchers note that additional research could determine how tutoring in repeating patterning might show benefits for numeracy or mathematics knowledge.

The researchers have made the tutoring curricula and protocol available online for educators so that they can feel more confident in engaging preschool-aged students in pattern knowledge development. “It is our hope that researchers, early childhood educators, and even parents can replicate these exercises easily and effectively,” Zippert said.

Additional tips and resources for supporting patterning are available to support parents and teachers.

The research, “Helping Preschoolers Learn Math: The Impact of Emphasizing the Patterns in Objects and Numbers” was published in the March 2021 edition of the Journal of Educational Psychology. The project was supported by Institute of Education Sciences grant R305A160132.