Does Counting, Not Reciting, Help Students Conquer Math?

Parents who recite numbers with their kids prior to elementary school to get them ready to tackle basic math might need to add one more step to assure their children’s success at developing numeracy. According to researchers from University of Missouri, in order to help children acquire math skills, their parents need to teach them how to count – which scientists define as assigning numerical values to objects in chronological order.

Louis Manfra, an assistant professor at MU’s Department of Human Development and Family Studies, explained the difference between the two. He said that while reciting numbers just means saying them from memory in chronological order, counting means understanding that each item in a particular set is counted once, and that each successive number represents the total of all items counted up to that point.

 “When children are just reciting, they’re basically repeating what seems like a memorized sentence. When they’re counting, they’re performing a more cognitive activity in which they’re associating a one-to-one correspondence with the object and the number to represent a quantity.”

Manfra drew that conclusion based on analysis of first grade math scores of 3,000 children from low-income families. When he checked to see what kind of preparation contributed to success in math class, he found that children who had learned to both recite and count to 20 prior to entering first grade had the best scores, but that only fewer than 10% of children he studied could do both prior to enrolling in elementary school.

“Counting gives children stronger foundations when they start school,” Manfra said. “The skills children have when they start kindergarten affect their trajectories through early elementary school; therefore, it’s important that children start with as many skills as possible.”

Manfra said that low income families frequently believe that educating their children is entirely the job of teachers — which could be one of the reasons why they do relatively little to get their kids ready before they start school. The reality, however, is that teachers often count on parents to do at least some prep work so that kids don’t first come to class being, in essence, blank slates when it comes to mathematics.

“These low-income children aren’t learning math skills anywhere because parents think the children are learning them at school, and teachers think they’re learning them at home,” Manfra said. “This is a problem because it gives parents and teachers the idea that it’s not their responsibility to educate the children, when it’s everyone’s responsibility. This is problematic because, when the children enter kindergarten and are at lower math levels, they don’t have the foundational skills needed to set them on paths for future success.”

Manfra added that both parents and teachers should make an effort to ensure that children acquire counting abilities quickly. To do this, they should seek out ways to make counting an every day part of kids’ lives, such as having them count cars while running errands or ask them to give the total number of utensils when sitting down to dinner.