Over the past few years, educators and experts all over the country have been investigating how we can advance STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Mathematics) education and close the achievement gap in these disciplines. Although research and policy has focused primarily on K-12 education, recent studies show that we can build a foundation for STEM success in early childhood.
In a study conducted at the University of Chicago, researchers found that engagement with “number talk” in early childhood is actually a key predictor of math achievement once children enter school. The study revealed a large variation among the participating families in terms of how many number words parents spoke in front of their young children (ages 14-30 months)—many children heard as few as three or four number words in an average day, and these children tended to struggle with basic math concepts. Journalist Annie Murphy Paul, in an article published by the education web site MindShift, aptly commented: “Many of us feel completely comfortable talking about letters, words, and sentences with our children—reading to them at night, helping them decode their own books… But speaking to them about numbers, fractions, and decimals? Not so much.”
This “number talk” in early childhood provides another tool we can use to promote STEM achievement. The MindShift article
provides some simple tips for incorporating math words into conversation with young children:
- Read numbers on road signs and in store windows.
- Ask a child to count toys, books,… or the number of broccoli florets the child has left on the dinner plate.
- Count down the hours to bedtime or the days to a holiday, and discuss temperatures in a weather forecast.
- Talk with older children about quantities in their favorite subjects and pastimes, such as sports scores or science projects.
Please share any additional tips on promoting “number talk” at home or in the classroom!
Above image provided by Chad Elliott.
There are distinctive differences between the cognitive structures for understanding math and those for learning to read. These differences have implications for intervention with struggling math students.
Both literacy and math use symbols – letters and numbers – that children must learn and make sense of in order for them to understand the more complex topics in reading and numeracy. In many ways, these symbols are similar. Both are part of a finite set (26 letters, 10 digits), both are used in conjunction with other symbols (punctuation in reading, operational and relational symbols in math), and both have names that have nothing to do with the symbol’s actual meaning or value. Most importantly, both are building blocks that students learn at the beginning of their education in reading and math.
It’s important for students to understand the distinctions between the contextual usage of numbers and letters in order for them to develop strong number sense. One of the most important big ideas in number is that numbers can be composed and decomposed. A single letter cannot be broken apart – it’s the most basic component of literacy. A number, on the other hand, can infinitely be broken apart into smaller numbers. This is connected to students’ understanding that numbers represent quantity. Understanding that 5 means ● ● ● ● ● will lead to the understanding that 5 is the same as 2 ● ● and 3 ● ● ● put together.
Unlike numbers, stand-alone letters do not hold any meaning. Only when put together do they begin to have purpose. From letters we build words, from words we form sentences, sentences strung together create paragraphs, and so on. On the other hand, when numbers are put together we are always left with another number.
Finally, the many contexts in which we use numbers makes learning mathematics very complex. When we combine letters, we create words. This concept is definitive – the purpose of letters is to create words (and sentences, and paragraphs). Numbers take on many different meanings. Take the number 7. Alone, it represents the quantity 7, ● ● ● ● ● ● ●. In the number 75, however, the 7 takes on a completely different meaning, 70. The same is true for the 7 in the fraction 1/7 and in the equation 7x + 3 = 31.
It is important to make the differences between literacy and numeracy clear, particularly for students who struggle with math. Understanding the distinct qualities of number will help them unlock the structure of math and make sense of more complex topics.
Recently, a teacher colleague asked me for some ideas about how to implement math projects throughout the year. It got me thinking about the use of projects in math class and how they can enhance student learning. Many schools use math programs that implement both short- and long-term projects that will complement their curriculum while engaging students with the skills they are learning in class.
Like any new classroom initiative, implementing projects can be challenging at first. Decisions about the frequency, duration, and topics included in the projects must be made. Materials need to be collected and organized, and grading policies must be established. Thankfully, there are a plethora of resources available to help you get started. One source that is helpful is MATHGuide Projects. This site provides guidelines and suggestions for a variety of projects. One of my favorite project ideas is for students to create a puzzle. I've had students create a crossword puzzle using Geometry vocabulary words. Students may also want to create a "cross-number" puzzle that uses equations as clues and the solutions as the answers in the boxes. Depending on students' ability levels, these projects may take time, but they are fun and help students master the applicable skill.
Another resource that is helpful is a book titled Hands-On Math Projects with Real-Life Applications (J. Muschla and G. Muschla). This book is available for various grade spans and provides a multitude of ideas and resources for implementing projects in your classroom.
Start slow — try introducing just a few projects this year and then add a few more each year. Before you know it, you'll be motivating your students and giving them a reason why learning math can be fun!
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