Math ES-Can You Speak Math?


Can you Speak Math?

by Shane Sullivan, ES Math/Science Instructional Coach

Most of us feel completely comfortable talking with our children. Often we speak in words about words. We talk of letter/word combinations and sentences. We read and write with our children. We help them decode book they are reading and discuss story lines. We share letters and emails from family and friends. We spend time talking about the “words” that surround us in everyday life.

But how often do we talk about numbers? How often do fractions, percentages or decimals enter our conversations. How often do numbers play a key role in our everyday conversations with our children? Possibly not enough. Studies show that talking about numbers and using mathematical language at home is a key predictor in student achievement in math at school.

A study published in Developmental Psychology written by Susan Levine and four co-authors from the University of Chicago supports this statement. In this study, psychologist visited 44 different families at home and recorded five separate 90 minute parent/child interactions. The recordings were taped at 4 month intervals. These interactions were then analyzed to determine how often “number-related words” were used during the interactions.

The analysis of the recordings showed that there was a large variation of number-related words used from family to family. Some families used over 250 number-related words during the time they were studied, while other families used as few as four. “This amount of variation would amount to a range of approximately 28 to 1,799 number-related words in a week,” said Levine.

At the end of the study the researchers assessed the children on age appropriate math skills. The results showed that the children who had the higher exposure to mathematical language at home tended to score higher on the assessments.

While this particular study was focused on preschool aged children, there is no doubt that having regular discussions with your child using mathematical language will be of benefit to your child’s mathematical progress at school.

We are surrounded by numbers everyday. Time, dates, money, temperature, distance, speed can all be incorporated into everyday conversations. For older students try to discuss current events, sports statistics, history, or even the scoring system of their favorite video games. Encouraging your child to talk about numbers and math will reinforce the idea that math is not just a subject in school, it is a science that is impossible to separate from our everyday lives.


Susan C. Levine, Linda Whealton Suriyakham, Meredith L. Rowe, Janellen Huttenlocher, Elizabeth A. Gunderson. What counts in the development of young children’s number knowledge? Developmental Psychology, 2010; 46 (5): 1309 DOI: 10.1037/a0019671