English-speaking Students Need Early Help in Math Education

Stephen DeAngelis

September 11, 2014

Sarah Mancoll, a Senior Associate at the Society for Research in Child Development (@SRCDtweets), notes, “Early math skills are emerging as important to later academic achievement. As many countries seek to strengthen their workforces in the STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) fields, understanding the early contributions to math skills becomes increasingly vital.” [“Spatial, written language skills predict math competence,” Eureka Alert, 22 October 2014] Among those countries seeking to strengthen STEM skills is the United States. In fact, Dick Resch, CEO of KI Furniture, asserts, “Americans could use a crash course in math. According to a new study from the Brookings Institution, jobs in science, technology, engineering, and math are vacant for more than twice as long as non-STEM positions — largely because employers can’t find people with the requisite math and science skills to fill them. In fact, high school graduates with STEM skills are in greater demand than college grads without them.” [“Failures in math, science education beginning to add up,” Bellaire Examiner, 30 August 2014] He continues:

“Our nation’s schools simply aren’t producing graduates with the level of numeracy needed to succeed in today’s economy. To change this, we must change the way we teach math and science — by replacing passive, lecture-based styles of instruction with an alternative that more actively engages students in the learning process. Conventional approaches to math and science education are failing. Twenty-nine nations or other jurisdictions outperform U.S. students in math, according to the latest rankings from the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, an international think tank. Since 2009, six countries have jumped ahead of the United States in the math rankings.”

I certainly agree with Resch that we need a more hands-on approach to teaching math and other STEM subjects. That’s one reason I, along with a few colleagues, founded The Project for STEM Competitiveness (i.e., to help get a project-based, hands-on, problem-solving approach into schools). There’s an old Chinese proverb that goes: “Tell me and I’ll forget; show me and I may remember; involve me and I’ll understand.” A project-based approach to education is the ultimate in involvement learning. The fact that getting involved produces understanding may also be the reason that being skilled with written, rather than oral, language provides a leg up for young children trying to learn math. Mancoll reports, “Research from Finland has found that children’s early spatial skills and knowledge of written letters, rather than oral language skills, predict competence in [math].” She explains:

“The research also found that children’s ability to count sequences of numbers serve as a bridge: Children with stronger early spatial skills and knowledge of written letters did better in counting sequences of numbers; such skill in counting was related to later math competence in general. Published in the journal Child Development, the study was conducted by researchers at The Hong Kong Institute of Education, and the Niilo Mäki Institute and the University of Jyväskylä, both in Finland. ‘Our results provide strong evidence that children’s early acquisition of written language, spatial, and number skills forms important foundations for the development of their competence in math in the elementary years,’ according to Xiao Zhang, assistant professor of psychology at The Hong Kong Institute of Education, who led the study. Spatial skills involve the ability to understand problems that relate to physical spaces, shapes, and forms. ‘As a practical matter, programs that build young children’s spatial and written language skills might help accelerate subsequent number-related knowledge and, in turn, the development of competence in math.’ … Children with better written language skills (those with more knowledge of written letters) not only had stronger math competence at the start of first grade, but advanced more rapidly in math through third grade. In contrast, children with strong oral language skills were not more likely to show strong math ability later. Spatial skills also were found to predict children’s development in math: Children with better spatial skills had stronger competence in math in first grade and later had more growth over time. And spatial and written language skills improved the development of math by enhancing children’s knowledge of sequential counting.”

According to new research, there could also be something else going on in this interesting linkage between language and mathematics. Sue Shellenbarger reports that some languages make it easier for children to understand mathematics than others. “What’s the best language for learning math?” she asks. “Hint: You’re not reading it.” [“The Best Language for Math,” The Wall Street Journal, 9 September 2014] She explains:

“Chinese, Japanese, Korean and Turkish use simpler number words and express math concepts more clearly than English, making it easier for small children to learn counting and arithmetic, research shows. The language gap is drawing growing attention amid a push by psychologists and educators to build numeracy in small children — the mathematical equivalent of literacy. Confusing English word names have been linked in several recent studies to weaker counting and arithmetic skills in children. … Differences between Chinese and English, in particular, have been studied in U.S. and Chinese schools for decades by Karen Fuson, a professor emerita in the school of education and social policy at Northwestern University, and Yeping Li, an expert on Chinese math education and a professor of teaching, learning and culture at Texas A&M University. Chinese has just nine number names, while English has more than two dozen unique number words. The trouble starts at ’11.’ English has a unique word for the number, while Chinese (as well as Japanese and Korean, among other languages) have words that can be translated as ‘ten-one’ — spoken with the ‘ten’ first. That makes it easier to understand the place value — the value of the position of each digit in a number — as well as making it clear that the number system is based on units of 10. English number names over 10 don’t as clearly label place value, and number words for the teens, such as 17, reverse the order of the ones and ‘teens,’ making it easy for children to confuse, say, 17 with 71, the research shows. When doing multi-digit addition and subtraction, children working with English number names have a harder time understanding that two-digit numbers are made up of tens and ones, making it more difficult to avoid errors. These may seem like small issues, but the additional mental steps needed to solve problems cause more errors and drain working memory capacity, says Dr. Fuson, author of a school math curriculum, Math Expressions, that provides added support for English-speaking students in learning place value.”

Obviously, society is not about to change the English language in order to facilitate better math skills. Fortunately, that may not be necessary. According to Shellenbarger, “Researchers are finding some easy ways for parents to level the playing field through games and early practice.” I think that parental involvement in children’s education is critical regardless of the subject being taught. Clearly, however, language and math skills are particularly important subjects. One method that has proved helpful, both in Asia and in the U.S., is the “make-a-ten” addition and subtraction strategy. Shellenbarger explains:

“It feels more natural for Chinese speakers than for English speakers to use the ‘make-a-ten’ addition and subtraction strategy taught to first-graders in many East Asian countries. When adding two numbers, students break down the numbers into parts, or addends, and regroup them into tens and ones. For instance, 9 plus 5 becomes 9 plus 1 plus 4. The make-a-ten method is a powerful tool for mastering more advanced multi-digit addition and subtraction problems, Dr. Fuson says.”

When it comes to games, Shellenbarger reports, “Board games can offset some of the disadvantages of speaking English, though only if played in a specific way.” She explains:

“Some kindergartners who played a board game with the numbers 1 through 100 lined up in straight rows of 10 improved their performance at identifying numbers and placing numbers on a number line, according to a 2014 study led by Elida Laski, an assistant professor of applied and developmental psychology at Boston College. The rows of 10 helped children see that the number system is based on tens. But the children improved only if researchers had them count aloud starting with the number of the square where they had landed; if children landed on square 5 and spun a 2, for example, they would count, ‘6, 7.’ This skill, called ‘counting on,’ is useful in early arithmetic. Kids who counted starting with ‘1’ for every turn improved their performance only half as much.”

Shellenbarger discusses a few of the games used and recommended by educators. They include: Addition Blocks by Fluency Games; Hungry Guppy by Motion Math; Hungry Fish by Motion Math; Match by Motion Math; Addimal Adventure by Teachley; and Monster School Bus by New Mexico State University Learning Games Lab. Another company creating math games is SAS Games, Inc. I was contacted by the company’s CEO, Stephen Scully, who wrote, “My ‘motivational tool’ is a math and strategy game where even ‘C’, ‘D’ and ‘F’ students engage because it’s a strategy game, it’s competitive, there’s a winner, there’s a loser and there are competitions to prepare for and look forward to competing in order to win prizes. Simply put, they are motivated. And most all students can master basic math skills. My games incorporate themes of interest to them with tournaments staged at exciting venues such as Major and Minor League Ballparks, NASA sites and Science Museums. Participants get to meet famous athletes, astronauts and scientists. As an example, Cal Ripken, Jr. is a partner and National spokesperson.” Scully directed me to the following video.

The bottom line is that English speakers need not despair when it comes to learning math. Some of the world’s best mathematicians have obviously been native English speakers. It’s good to know, however, that there are some fun ways for parents, teachers, and students to engage in math education — regardless of what language they speak.