Many new parents may feel silly talking to their infant as if she were capable of conversation (after all, aren’t babies just squooshy bundles of mostly joy?), but studies have proven that conversing with a child, even a newborn, helps develop language skills later on. So instead of using “baby talk” to communicate with an infant or toddler, professionals suggest parents talk to their child in a normal speaking voice without high-pitched intonations and made-up words (the occasional “flubsy wubsy” permitted).
But what about number talk? How important are talking about numbers and using number words in daily interactions to a child’s understanding of the cardinal number principle (i.e., the size of a set of objects is determined by the last number reached when counting the set), an early skill that helps form the basis of mathematical knowledge? A recent study published in Developmental Psychology found that early number talk is in fact very important and not only predictive of preschool preparedness but also of later academic achievement.
Susan Levine of University of Chicago and her colleagues enrolled 44 toddlers (and their parents) and videotaped 90-minute parent-child interactions every four months, at ages 14, 18, 22, 26 and 30 months. They listened for the frequency with which parents used number words during each session. Some parents used as few as four number words over the entire study period, and other parents used as many as 257.
They found that the children whose parents spoke more number words with them over the study period were, at the end of the study, more able to accurately point out a correct number set than those children whose parents had used fewer number words.
The cardinal number principle is a basis for mathematical thought, since knowing that, for example, the word “six” is related to a set size (six objects). Simply knowing how to count “one, two, three, four, five, six” does not involve abstract thought. Studies have shown that early mathematical ability, starting as early as preschool, is predictive of later academic achievement.
So the next time your two-year-old has a snack, try saying, “Here are three graham crackers” instead of just saying, “Here are some graham crackers” or not saying anything at all. If you incorporate number talk as part of your everyday conversations with your child, then you never know, she may be on her way to Yale.
Visit the National Science Foundation website to watch a short video of Susan Levine explain the study and its significance: www.nsf.gov.
Reprint with permission from Pediatrics for Parents, the newsletter for caring parents. For a sample issue send $2.00 to Pediatrics for Parents, P.O. Box 219, Gloucester, MA or visit www.pedsforparents.com.