Our Children Are Counting On Us: Early Math Literacy

By Michelle Boyle

You often hear parents fret about whether or not their child is reading, even as early as kindergarten. Interestingly enough, however, we don’t hear a lot of conversation or even concern about whether or not our kids possess early math literacy. In fact, I’ve never even heard that term used among parents.

My husband and I are major offenders. From the time our daughter was a year old, I posted big signs around our apartment, labeling various items–bookshelf, oven, microwave, etc. We read to our daughter every day, practiced sounds, played with words, and emphasized the wonder and beauty of books. Numbers, patterns shapes, measurements, for all intents and purposes, were basically ignored. My husband and I attributed this intellectual imbalance to the fact that we are both English teachers, but after having discussed with many JCDS teachers, I realize that this is more the norm than the exception.

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So why is this the case? Well, the fact that many parents don’t like math and/or don’t consider themselves good at it doesn’t help matters. As Marilyn Burns points out in her seminal book Math: Facing an American Phobia, “…A disturbingly large percentage of the American population fears and loathes–mathematics. Math is right up there with snakes, public speaking, and heights. By far, it’s the least favorite of the three Rs of education (reading, writing, arithmetic)…” Part of the problem is that many parents still think about learning math as simply learning math facts and memorizing multiplication tables, but math is so much more than this. As Emily Beck, kindergarten teacher (and former middle school math teacher), explains, “Math is about so much more than computation. Kids need to understand the concepts behind computation and algorithms; it is best to teach them the algorithm after students have parsed apart essential components of the algorithm which allow them to understand how and why the algorithm conceptually works.” She goes on to explain how it is really important for young children to develop an early number sense and to approach this similarly to how we promote phonemic awareness in children. See below for tips to promote early math and data literacy.

Often in math we emphasize getting to the right answer.

Instead, we should focus on thinking about mathematical concepts and identifying patterns.

Here at JCDS, we take a problem-solving approach to math. We emphasize the importance of students reflecting on what strategies they used to solve a problem and what other strategies they could have used (based on other students sharing their process), and we also encourage students to take a multi-stepped and deliberate approach to solving problems. We want students to be able to think conceptually about math, not just to use rote memorization to solve problems on one worksheet after another.

Vivian Troen, a consultant for JCDS and Director of The Power of Teacher Learning, works with lower school teachers on enhancing and strengthening the math curricula. She explains, “people don’t see math as the important gatekeeper it is. Part of the problem is that schools have typically emphasized learning math facts but have not focused on teaching or understanding complex mathematical concepts.” Vivian goes on to explain that we need and use math in every facet of our lives from measuring ingredients in recipes to calculating a tip at a restaurant to counting money to pay for an item. “There are so many ways to teach children to enjoy the mathematical world in which we live–just go outside and observe the shapes and patterns in nature– pick up a pine cone and notice the pattern as well as count the scales that wind around the cone. This is the perfect opportunity to teach your child that mathematical concepts and patterns (like words) are everywhere, to be treasured and enjoyed.”


Fun Ways To Promote Early Math Literacy

  • Math Facts: While you’re driving in the car, make a game out of adding and subtracting numbers on the license plates of other cars. Much more fun than flash cards!
  • Money: When your child wants to buy something in a store, give him/her some money to count out the correct amount. Likewise, have your child calculate the amount of change he/she should receive back from the cashier.
  • Time: Place both analog and digital clocks in your home and talk about time – “It’s 7 am when we eat breakfast, but it’s 7:00 pm when we brush our teeth to get ready for bed.” Talk about there being 60 minutes in an hour, and have your kids help you plan how to divide up an hour’s time: 20 minutes for playing outside, 10 minutes to walk the dog, 15 minutes to fold the laundry, 15 minutes to read a book. Set a timer for each of these designated periods so your child can develop a sense of how long 10 minutes feels.
  • Skip counting can be fun: Notice what comes in pairs and count by twos. While folding laundry, you might find 10 pairs of socks which is equal to 20 socks. Count by fives and see how many fingers  or toes there are in your family.
  • Patterns are everywhere:  Look at flooring tile and try to determine and name the patterns. While doing beading, create a pattern and have your child replicate or extend it: Red, Blue, Red Red, Blue Blue, Red Red Red, Blue Blue Blue.
  • Measurement: Cooking in the kitchen is a great place to introduce fractions and measurement terms (cups, teaspoons, milliliter). Challenge your child to see how many times the 1/4 cup can be filled with 1 cup of rice.
  • Weight: Building structures out of straws or legos, weighing the object, and then testing to see if your structure can hold the weight of the object. This activity can spark a lot of interesting discussion about
  • Math Apps on the Ipad: Although you don’t want to rely on technology, it can be a great tool for generating excitement in math. Chavah Goldman, 2nd grade teacher at JCDS, recommends the following apps:
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