Is Math Talk a Missing Key to Literacy?

There is a problem with our country’s response to illiteracy but it’s not what you think.  Countless programs and politicians have rallied to eradicate the illiteracy rate in our country but very few have taken up the cause of illiteracy’s stepsister – innumeracy.  A recent study by Geary, Hoard, Nugent and Bailey showed that 1 in 5 adults are “innumerate”. In other words, 20% of the American work force does not possess basic math skills and, as a result, is not prepared for today’s modern jobs.  

What if the solution for increasing literacy rates in our country could actually be found in improving our mathematical talk?  Consider the type of thinking that is needed by third grade as children transition from “learning to read” to “reading to learn”:

– Describing, analyzing, and comparing. 

– Drawing conclusions.

– Identifying multiple perspectives for solving a problem.

– Constructing viable arguments and critiquing the reasoning of others.

Actually, the above phrases are from the MATH standards and yet, the same language is reflected in LITERACY standards.  Why?  The capacity for reasoning and thinking abstractly with math concepts is the same type of thinking that children need to logically comprehend complex texts.

Numeracy shares something else in common with literacy: it has to become a priority in the earliest time of a child’s life.  The same study mentioned above found that if a child is behind in math by 1st grade, he will not catch up.

This begs the question, “What can be done to PREVENT the achievement gap in both math and literacy?”   The answer is the same for early learning in both SUBJECT AREAS – early and powerful TALK.

The issue of “innumeracy” is not just about whether our children can count just as the issue of illiteracy is not simply a lack of knowing the alphabet.  Counting is such a small part of numeracy.  Problem-solving, mathematical language and communication skills, fact-based conclusions, abstract thinking, and categorizing concepts are all skills that are developed through mathematical talking.  Teachers and parents often report feeling less confident or equipped to engage in mathematical conversations as compared to literacy conversations.  Home studies by Barbarin showed language/early literacy mentioned 50 percent of the time and numeracy mentioned only 3.5 percent of the time.  The bottom line is, parents aren’t sure HOW to “talk math.”

Many turn to worksheets or flash cards to prepare their child for math. Instead, consider incorporating math into the context of everyday routines. Here are some examples:

  • Model how to set the table and make patterns: fork – plate – napkin. Ask questions like “What if two more guests came to dinner? How many more forks, plates, and napkins would we need? Can you set the table and show me?”
  • For birthday parties, find different ways to arrange the candles on the cake. For example, for a child’s 5th birthday start with 3 candles on top and 2 on bottom. Then explore other options, such as 1 candle on top and 4 on bottom and so forth. While it may seem silly, composing and decomposing numbers is a big part of developing a strong sense of number and problem solving.
  • At the grocery store, allow the child to weigh the produce.  Ask “Do you think the bag of apples will weigh more or less than the bag of kiwis?” Then, weigh and compare.Image

This is the goal of ReadyRosie, a new early childhood tech resource. It is not like any other online resource.  It is not a game.  It is not an online book.  It is a tool that models the way math and literacy conversations can take place in the most common occurrences of life.  Deep conceptual understanding with HUMAN interaction between parent and child. Our goal is to show teachers, parents, and caregivers that you don’t have to be a mathematician to raise a genius in the area of math. You don’t have to have an education degree to raise a profound reader or writer.  In fact, you don’t even have to know the right ANSWERS.  You just have to know how to ask the deeper QUESTIONS.  The child becomes the problem solver. Not just in that instance, but for life.  It will be the children who are problem solvers that will rise to the top academically – both in the areas of math and literacy.

Shared by Melissa Nast and Candis Grover, Directors of Math and Literacy/Spanish Development for ReadyRosie.

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