Language News: Helping children learn to understand numbers: It’s all in the way we speak to them

Science Daily is a blog that covers the latest research journal publications, and this academically oriented site has covered a number of stories about numbers, counting, and number perception in the past.  This entry, however, covers research by Michael Ramscar, Melody Dye, Hanna Muenke Popick, and Fiona O’Donnell-McCarthy, which makes specific recommendations about how educators might alter the way they talk about numbers in order to improve young children’s perceptions of them.

Specifically, they suggest that using the two sentence structure “Look at the bears.  There are three!”  is a more effective technique for getting young children to learn numbers than the single sentence “Look at the three bears.”  According to the research, the first strategy was 30% more effective than the second.

Although the blog suggests that this is related to the fact that the sentence “There are three bears” is strictly true even when there are more than three, there may also be another, more linguisticky reason for this finding.  Namely, the two-sentence structure means that there is less information per sentence.  Thus, the first sentence says “bears,” and the second sentence says “three.” Spacing out these two different pieces of information likely helps with attention and focus, thus making children more likely to process the number information.

Clearly more research is needed, but as the Science Daily editors note, “These experimental findings provide the first evidence that the ‘number sense’ can be improved by properly targeted training, while the computational modeling provides a formal account of why the training works, as well as offering the first formal model of how the number sense is learned, and how numerical capacity limits arise.”  These are very important findings, and ones that all educators should learn about.



Helping children learn to understand numbers: It’s all in the way we speak to them.


About LingEducator

Dr. Jaclyn Ocumpaugh received a PhD for her dissertation on regional variation in the acoustics of Mexican American English (Michigan State University, East Lansing). Before that, she received an MA in English/Linguistics from North Carolina State University for her work on the acoustics of /r/--a sound which is highly variable in the English language. Her passion, however, has always been to understand the social implications of language variation. In addition to her work in acoustic sociophonetics, she has worked with rape trial analysis, developed cognitive methods for understanding discourse level variation between men and women, and created sophisticated tools for teaching future educators about the kinds of dialect variation they will find in the classroom. She has taught classes in English, Linguistics, and Education at Old Dominion University, William & Mary, the University of Mary Washington, and Virginia Wesleyan College. She is currently a Post Doctoral Fellow of Learning Sciences and Technologies at Worcester Polytechnic Institute, where she is helping to develop models of student engagement in the classroom. She also consults in the private sector.
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