The Number-Letter Connection
Learning mathematics makes children better readers. Find out how.
By Douglas Clements Ph.D. and Julie Sarama
“That’s not a triangle! It’s too skinny!”
“But it is a triangle. It’s got three straight sides, see? One, two, three! It doesn’t matter that I made it skinny.”
Listening in on these two children, you can’t help but wonder: Are they talking about math — or language? Or is it both?
Most people think of mathematics as wholly separate from language and literacy, involving not just different skills, but different feelings. Many people would describe literacy in terms of narrative, as poetic and “warm.” By contrast, mathematics might be described in terms of logic, as symbolic and “cold.” Learning to read involves sounds and letters. Learning math involves basic facts.
But scratch the surface, and it becomes plain that there’s a lot of overlap between language and math. Consider the children’s conversation: They were using language terms to describe mathematical principles. And once you see and understand that connection, you can help your children get more value out of learning both disciplines. By connecting the two areas, children also build a far deeper understanding of each.
Talking about math, for example, helps kids increase their vocabulary. It compels them to really consider what words mean and how they’re used. Mathematics requires precision in language. It requires explanation of one’s reasoning. When children are learning math, they benefit from thinking hard about what words mean and how those meanings are decided upon. For example, the word “straight” may mean “vertical” in some contexts to some people. In mathematics, it’s defined as not having curves.
It’s obvious to parents, of course, that as their child’s vocabulary increases, he or she is better equipped to understand stories and eventually read. What’s less obvious is how many mathematical words and ideas are important for appreciating stories. Think of “Goldilocks and the Three Bears”. There’s the number three right away. But there is also the mathematical principle of ordering (small, medium, large; cold, warm, hot), correspondences between ordered sets (the smallest bed for the smallest bear, the next larger for the next larger bear), patterning (the repeated too little, too big, just right) and so forth. This familiar tale, and many other stories, depend on logical thinking, which involves classifications and conditionals (if/then thinking).
Learning mathematics forms those foundations. For example, doing interesting work with shapes and combining shapes in the early years improves not just children’s achievement in mathematics in school, but also their writing and even their IQ scores.
Building Math and Language Concepts
Just as learning math helps kids build language skills, getting more proficient with language also supports your child’s learning of mathematics. Often, children who do better in mathematics have the ability to explain and justify the mathematics they are doing. Also, one of the largest predictors of later success in school mathematics is being able to understand and tell stories well. So, read interesting narratives to your child and encourage her to tell the story back to you. Here are some other strategies to try:
As you read stories, talk about the numbers, orderings, correspondences, and patterns you see in books. (It’s helpful to read the book through first, then reread it, and find and discuss the mathematical ideas it contains.)
Take the principles you’ve picked up in your child’s favorite story and help him “play” with them. For instance, you can ask your child to put sticks or blocks in order by length. You can build stairs with cubes or blocks ? each step one greater than the last. You might sort buttons, bottle caps, or leaves into groups by color, shape, size, or type.
Name groups of things with numbers and shape names. You might say, “Look at those three beautiful flowers. What shape are those petals?”
The point is that when children can verbalize what they’re doing in math, they do it better. A teacher we worked with who was worried that focusing on math would sacrifice language skills said it best: “When I stepped back and looked, I realized doing math was doing language.”
Douglas H. Clements, Ph.D., is a professor of early childhood education at the State University of New York at Buffalo. He has also taught preschool and kindergarten