Study Finds 3-Year Olds Understand Multi-Digit Numbers

New research led by a Michigan State University education scholar reveals that 3-year old children understand multi-digit numbers better than previously thought. According to the study, those kids may be prepared for more direct math education when they enter school, according to Science Blog.

The study was published in the journal Child Development and was funded by the U.S. Department of Education's Institute of Education Sciences. It makes recommendations for U.S. students who are not performing well in mathematics international tests compared to other nations.

"Contrary to the view that young children do not understand place value and multi-digit numbers, we found that they actually know quite a lot about it," said Kelly Mix, MSU professor of educational psychology and co-author of the study. "They are more ready than we think when they enter kindergarten."

Understanding place value is very important. It is the gateway to higher math skills such as addition with carrying, and there is a strong connection between place value skills in early elementary grades and problem-solving ability later on.

"In short, children who fail to master place value face chronic low achievement in mathematics," according to the study.

The researchers, including Mix and Richard Prather and Linda Smith, both from Indiana University, tested children ages 3 to 7 in several experiments on their ability to identify and compare two- and three-digit numbers.

Children, in one task, were shown two quantities and asked to point out which was larger. "There was significant improvement in interpreting place value from age 3 to 7," Mix said, "but it was remarkable that even the youngest children showed at least some understanding of multi-digit numbers."

According to Mix, the unexpected results are possibly due to the fact that children in today's society are bombarded with multi-digit numbers – from phone numbers to street addresses to price tags. She also said it is interesting that children may be developing partial knowledge of the place value system at least partly from language.

Children regularly hear multi-digit numbers named while also seeing them in print, such as when parents comment on a calendar, ask their child to push the elevator buttons or look for a room number in an office building.

In previous research and teacher observations, it was indicated that children do not understand the symbols for place value – and, thus, multi-digit numbers – until well into elementary school. Normally, young students receive specialized conceptual instruction on place value, such as with place value blocks.

Children were trained by the researchers on place value blocks and found no improvement. However, training with written symbols alone did yield significant benefits. According to Mix, more direct instruction with place value and multi-digit numbers should be considered in the early grades.

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