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The Importance of Early Numeracy Skills

Updated: Nov 17, 2022

It’s pretty widely known that early literacy skills predict future literacy success. But did you know that early math skills predict academic success even better? In fact, research suggests that early math skills not only predict future mathematics success, but are a better predictor of academic success in language arts than early literacy skills!

With so much brain development going on before kids even enter kindergarten, some parents feel the pressure is on! You may think, am I doing enough with my child to set them up for success in school? Am I doing too much? Will they be bored in kindergarten if they are too much ahead? I have questioned myself on these things!

So I’m here today to let you know that building early numeracy skills does not need to be anxiety provoking, and can actually be fun! Read on to find out what concepts and skills you can work on with your young learner to get them started on the right track!

Before kids can even count objects with consistency, you can begin to work on SUBITIZING! Subitizing is the ability to instantly recognize a quantity without having to count. Think about when you roll dice. As adults, we know what number we rolled without having to count. That’s because we recognize that spatial arrangement of dots. Even before students recognize numerals for each number, they can begin to work on understanding quantities and subitizing. Dice games are popular tools for subitizing. You can play games like Chutes and Ladders, Candy Land, or Sorry! You can roll dice and build a set to match what is on the dice, then you can even compare sets to see which set has more and which has fewer. You can also have your child match a visual set to the matching numeral. Other tools that are super helpful for subitizing are ten frames and reckenreks. If you want to learn more about these tools check out the videos on my YouTube channel to get some ideas.

Secondly, COUNT EVERYTHING ALL THE TIME! Seriously, counting is the most foundational skill in mathematics and no other math skills can be built until counting skills are mastered. The tricky part is that counting is surprisingly complex. So let me break it down for you. When students count they need to know the oral counting sequence, and then they need to have lots of practice counting sets to practice one to one correspondence. That means that they say the number as they touch or push the corresponding object. Students will begin by counting a set of objects that they have been given, and will progress to being able to produce their own set to match a given number. If students are struggling with one to one correspondence, you may find it helpful to do some object matching. In school this may look like a teacher setting up ten counting bears and then the student gives each bear a “gift” like a centimeter cube and counts as the gift touches each bear. Practice counting how many steps to make it somewhere. Count how many packs of sugar are in the container at IHOP. Count and show numbers on your fingers! (Seriously using fingers helps kids understand benchmarks of 5 and 10). Want those candies? Count and tell me how many and then you can eat them! I wonder how many toy cars you have? How many crayons are there? Kids have short attention spans, so you don’t need to work on this for long periods of time, just do it often! Keep counting and have fun!

Now another big idea that goes with counting is CARDINALITY. I still remember how excited I was as an educator when I learned that there was a word for this thing I was noticing working with kids but didn’t know it had a name. You may notice as you are working on counting with your kiddo, that they may be able to count a set but once they finish counting and you ask them how many there were, they can’t tell you or they may have to recount. Learning how to count a set does not mean that a child understands that the last number tells how many are in the set! That is cardinality! Students who struggle to produce a set of a given amount for you are probably still working on cardinality. There is a lot to balance in your head when you are first learning about numbers! Keep practicing! And after they count, ask them again, so how many were there? What was the last number you said? Six? Ok so that’s what six things looks like! Good job!

The next big idea is CONSERVATION! When kids first learn about number, they do not develop flexibility right away. They understand 5 as 1,2,3,4,5 things. If you take a set of 5 things and break them into a group of 3 and a group of 2, and you ask them if there are still 5 things, they will tell you no…even if they watched you move the five things around they will see the parts of 5 but not understand that those parts together are still 5. If you line up a set of 5 objects close together and another row of 5 identical things right below it, but spread out, your child may think the second row of objects has more. If you show them a set of 5 small blocks and then a set of 5 larger blocks, they may say the set with the larger blocks is more because the blocks are bigger. These are all examples of what it looks like when a learner does not understand conservation of number. The cool thing is, doing things like what I just described with your learner and counting and checking and talking about what they notice can help them develop this understanding. I remember sitting at restaurants asking my son to show me 5 sugar packets. And then telling him to show me 5 another way, and another way, breaking the set of sugar packets into different sized parts. This was leading into understanding composing and decomposing numbers! Which leads us to our next big idea…

HIERARCHICAL INCLUSION! This is the understanding that each number contains all the numbers before it. For example, a set of 5 INCLUDES a set of 4, 3, 2, and 1. Understanding that there are smaller numbers inside of larger numbers is the beginning of understanding part/whole relationships. These are prerequisite skills for addition and subtraction.

The last big idea is UNITIZING! We don’t expect students to master unitizing before entering school, but it is definitely worthwhile to explore if they are ready! When learners unitize, they are able to see a group of objects as a single unit, while at the same time seeing its individual parts. For example, if a student groups a set of objects in groups of 5, a student who is able to unitize can tell you how many objects AND HOW MANY GROUPS OF FIVE. Unitizing is a huge idea that is needed to understand our place value system and is necessary to build flexible and efficient computation strategies. As your learner practices counting, show them how they can organize their objects into groups of ten. Practice counting the objects by ones and by tens. Ask, how many groups of ten? How many ones is that? Also, understanding teen numbers as a group of ten and leftovers is a huge important idea for kindergarten.

Remember that math is all around us! You don’t have to sit your kiddo down at the table for math lessons before they start formal school. In fact, even in school we practice many of these concepts informally through games because kids learn through play!

Have fun with it! Do not stress. Kids develop at different rates, but making a point to see and use numbers and mathematical ideas in your life early on will set up your child for success!

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