Start Early To Prevent Innumeracy

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One in five adults in the U.S. can’t do basic arithmetic problems such as adding fractions, working with measurements, and doing whole number arithmetic problems, according to a new study about how math skills develop.

Celia Baker of Deseret News reports that 22 percent of adult Americans are functionally innumerate—a term that describes the inability to do math problems in the same way the word illiterate describes the inability to read or write. The millions of Americans who fit in this category don’t have the basic math skills for most modern jobs, the study says, including jobs open to people without college degrees:

“The study, by researchers at the University of Missouri, showed it is important for children to comprehend that written numerals represent quantities by the time they enter first grade. They also need to be able to solve simple arithmetic problems by grouping numbers, not just counting.

The long-term study followed 177 children from kindergarten through seventh grade. It found that children who don’t grasp the meaning and function of numerals before they enter first grade fall behind their peers in math achievement, and most of them don’t catch up. Those who start first grade behind their peers in math achievement remain at heightened risk for low scores on math problems through seventh grade.

It’s the first study to link starting points of math knowledge to outcomes that will affect kids later in life, said psychologist David Geary, an author of the study. ‘We know very little about the precursors of later innumeracy,’ Geary said. ‘A lot of focus has been on preparation for college math, and not as much focus on the bottom 25 percent of students who won’t be going to college—and in addition to that, will have employment problems.’

It’s whether children have been taught about numbers—and when—that matters, not how smart or advantaged they are, according to the study. And that means there is hope for changing the crippling effects of poor math achievement, which include heightened chances for dropping out of school. ‘If we catch (math comprehension problems) early enough, it’s something we can probably do something about,’ Geary said.” (Read more here.)

Baker adds that  in recent decades, attention to education’s “three Rs” — reading, writing and arithmetic—”has focused sharply on the first two Rs to the exclusion of ‘rithmetic during early school grades.” Is this the case in your experience? Are the children you know getting sufficient math instruction?

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2 Responses to “Start Early To Prevent Innumeracy”

  1. I never waited for the schools to teach my children math. From toddlerhood I provided them with puzzles, counting games, fractional pieces, and geometric solids. We had a math box filled with counting chips, dominoes, rulers, playing cards, and number games. We measured, counted, compared, sorted, and classified as part of our daily life. They entered kindergarten understanding that the number line does not begin at zero. As a learning specialist, I have worked with so many children in reading and math. Over and over I see kids who do are lacking in numeracy skills. Almost always, you will see the breakdown when the child is introduced to fractions.

  2. Bob Rothman says:

    I think this study is important, but there is no evidence for her claim that schools have neglected the third R in recent decades. Math performance, as measured by the National Assessment of Educational Progress, has risen substantially in the past two decades, with the average 4th grade scale score rising from 213 to 241–that’s almost the equivalent of three grade levels–and the average 8th grade scale score rising by 20 points. Yes, US math performance lags behind that of other countries, but it has done so for decades. There is no evidence of a neglect in math education; if anything, there has been great improvement.

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