Math Skills and Young Children

By NCLD Editorial Staff

What we Know and What we Still Need to Find Out

We all know by now about the importance of learning to read and developing strong literacy skills in the preschool years and early elementary grades. But what about math? Much less is known about the science underlying early math learning and instruction in comparison to our now extensive knowledge in the area of early reading.

The steps we refer to when talking about "breaking the code" (an expression often used to mean 'learning to read') appear to be very different when it comes to math. Much research still needs to be done before we can, with confidence, know which specific skills are the essential building blocks for math learning, in what order they are best learned, and through what strategies and activities they are best taught to young children.

There is some evidence to suggest (and it makes logical sense) that the numerical concepts children acquire in early childhood lay the foundation for learning mathematical concepts. And professional wisdom tells us that successful early experiences in math have a powerful effect on the interest and confidence students bring to new opportunities for math learning.

We believe that providing carefully tailored individual or small group instruction together with additional practice, explanation and feedback might be sufficient for many students who are lagging behind their peers in learning critical foundational skills in math. While there are surely students whose underlying struggles in math learning are due to learning disabilities, tailoring math instruction in the early years will benefit all children.

To help identify young students who are in need of special attention in math, NCLD is exploring the possibility of developing a screening tool that will point to at-risk behaviors and document math difficulties (or early signs of disabilities), so that carefully targeted and intentional opportunities for instruction can be provided to students who show early signs of struggle.

Researchers in the area of math and learning disabilities are beginning to identify the knowledge and skills that are necessary for students to benefit from math instruction in kindergarten and the elementary grades. Research is also beginning to show how to get this knowledge into classrooms through high-quality educational products and services and professional development activities. One important thing that we learned from looking at recent research is that two math-related abilities appear to be key variables for success:

  • Strategic counting: The ability to use counting to solve problems such as, "How many cookies do you see?" as opposed to rote counting.
  • Magnitude comparisons: The understanding of more/less and its impact in real life situations.


Other skills that appear to be important for later math learning include:


  • Number recognition: Linking numerals with names.
  • Retrieval of basic arithmetic facts, without having to count.
  • Solving simple word problems.

To Be Continued...

The research in early math is in its infancy, but we now have an emerging knowledge base that allows us to begin to draw conclusions, guide future research and inform current practice.

The limited research that is available in the area of early math instruction and learning suggests that there are significant differences between kindergarten and first grade when it comes to math. While exposure to math concepts and opportunities for practice appear to be important in preparing students for success in math, a "menu" of exactly the types of skills that young children need to master is just now being developed.

Hopefully, this knowledge will be incorporated into screening measures and instructional approaches and incorporated into wide-spread practice throughout early childhood practice.

Suggested Resource

PBS Parents: Early Math
This interactive Web site has activities and ideas to help nurture development of your child's early math skills.

Adapted from an article by Sheldon H. Horowitz, Ed.D., the Director of Professional Services at the National Center for Learning Disabilities (NCLD).


Suggested Tip!

Read Books New Ways

Does it feel like you’ve read the same story 100 times? Read it a new way: Ask the child questions about what they think will happen next and encourage them to tell you what they see in the illustrations.
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