Flickr: Benjamin Rossen

Do you speak math with your kids?

Many of us feel completely comfortable talking about letters, words and sentences with our children—reading to them at night, helping them decode their own books, noting messages on street signs and billboards.

But speaking to them about numbers, fractions, and decimals? Not so much. And yet studies show that “number talk” at home is a key predictor of young children’s achievement in math once they get to school. Now a new study provides evidence that gender is part of the equation: Parents speak to their daughters about numbers far less than their sons.

The report, published in the Journal of Language and Social Psychology, drew on a collection of recordings of mothers talking to their toddlers, aged 20 to 27 months. Alicia Chang, a researcher at
the University of Delaware, and two coauthors determined that mothers spoke to boys about number concepts twice as often as they spoke to girls. Children this age are rapidly building their vocabularies, Chang notes, and helping them become familiar with number words can
promote their interest in math later on.

That was made clear in another study, published in Developmental Psychology in 2010, which also used recordings of parents talking to their children to gauge how often number words were used (the kids in this study were between the ages of 14 and 30 months). Psychologist Susan Levine of the University of Chicago and her coauthors found huge variation among the families studied: Some children were hearing their parents speak only about two dozen number words a week, while others were hearing such words about 1,800 times weekly.

The frequency of number talk in the children’s homes had a big impact on how well the youngsters understood basic mathematical concepts such as the cardinal number principle, which holds that the last number reached when counting a set of objects determines the size of the set (“One, two,
three—three apples in the bowl!”). A subsequent study by Levine found that the kind of number talk that most strongly predicted later knowledge of numbers involved counting or labeling sets of objects that are right there in front of parent and child–especially large sets, containing between four and ten objects.

Though it may not come naturally at first, parents can develop the habit of talking about numbers as often as they talk about letters and words. Some simple ways to work numbers into the conversation:

  • Note numbers on signs when you’re walking or driving with children: speed limits and exit numbers, building addresses, sale prices in store windows.
  • Ask children to count how many toys they’re playing with, how many books they’ve pulled out to read, or how many pieces of food are on their plate.
  • Use numbers when you refer to time, dates, and temperatures: how many hours and minutes until bedtime, how many weeks and days until a holiday, the high and low the weatherman predicts for that day.
  • With older children, math can become a part of talking about sports, science, history, video games, or whatever else they’re interested in.

With practice, parents and children alike will find that math makes a very satisfying second language.

  • covertcoviewer

    I recently blogged about how to accomplish talking more math via watching TV with your kids:

  • Coach Carrie

    I enjoyed this article and are great reminders since I have 2 girls about reinforcing math skills, thanks!

  • F atima shamlakh

    I enjoy   with these results  i think also talking  math with kids is important

  • Odedude

    One of my grandchildren (4) has been fascinated by numbers since he was 2.  Not only can he count, but he has been doing simple arithmetic–first on his fingers and now mentally.  He spots numbers on signs, in books and magazines, and on television.  No matter what book is being read to him, he stops to count objects on the pages.  On walks around my neighborhood, he points out interesting house numbers (“That’s a big one, isn’t it, Grandpa?”) He loves the weather reports on TV.  He is equally fascinated by words, and I encourage both his mathematical and verbal interests.

  • crazymathteacher

    I’m a mat hteacher and have “talking” numbers formally for about 6 month now.  It has changed the I teach.  A great resource for teacher is the book Number Talks by Sherry Perrish.

  • Kate Nonesuch

    Lots of ideas about math things to do with kids in Family Math Fun!

    Free at Funded by the Office of Literacy and Essential Skills, HRSDC
    ·     Things
    to do in the kitchen and on a walk, rhymes, games, and things to make, all to
    promote math thinking and learning.

    ·     Math
    for the whole person: spirit, heart, body and mind are all connected in the
    activities in this book. When these are in balance, math becomes part of our
    whole lives, not a beast or a barrier.

    ·     Patterns,
    recipes, and hand-outs all included (109 pages).       


  • When my daughter was little we’d play hide-and-seek.  One, two, e, three, pi, two squared, five, six, seven, two cubed, three squared, ten….

  • skeptic

    Have you considered that maybe this is a correlation-causation fallacy? Perhaps the parents that talked math more frequently with their kids were genetically more mathematically-inclined than the ones that didn’t.

    • Tim

      I think that too often proponents of the ‘nature’ side of the nature vs nurture debate are the ones mistaking correlation for causation.

      • skeptic

         On what basis?

    • Headofpe

      Isn’t it a bit of both? People who are predisposed to finding Math easy are also more confident about sharing it with their offspring. In turns their children are both genetically predisposed and verbally exposed to the vocabulary.
      I don’t think you can genetically programmed to just know complicated algorithms since those are human-made constructs.

  • Jhante

    I taught my young son how to solve two equations with two unknowns while he was sitting in the back seat riding around doing errands with me.  He got quite good at it and thought it was lots of fun.

    • pdx_dc

       how did you do it.. pleas share.. I am always willing to learn how to teach my little one.  thank you

      • jhante

        Start with one equation. “What do I have to add to 4 if I want to get 6?” You can work in the idea that this unknown number is called “X”. Then start asking “4 + X = 6”, find X. Once they are comfortable with those, solving two at a time is not a huge leap. 5+X = 10 and 7+X = 12, what is X? Start with the ones that are easy enough to visualize, so they don’t need to use techniques of substitution or adding the two equations together. It’s enough that they can play around with a few numbers in their head to see what works.

  • Jhante

    With my older son we took long walks in the evening when he was in elementary school, and as we walked we counted by 2’s and then by 3’s, and then by 4’s, etc.  It really drilled it into him but felt more like a game because we were out walking and having fun with it.  I really agree with this article, that exposure to numbers as less than “scary things” is a good precursor to math fluency later in a child’s education/life.

  • BStone

    Psychological research into gender disparity in math achievement is bluster so long as people like Summers get fired for suggesting a politically incorrect hypothesis.

  • Elisabeth

    I am an educator and blogger. I agree with your ideas about the importance of giving children  time to explore the mathematics in the world around them. My blog has a series of posts that tries to help parents and educators see mathematics in the world around them it is called “Math Photo of the Month”. I take photos of mathematical situations and then develop questions that you might ask young children about the ideas in the picture. This month’s post relates to collections of toys:

  • I’ve advocated methods similar to this for years and used this method when I worked as a tutor:

    Some people are more verbal than others, so, when you identify a verbal learner, you should first teach math verbally, like you would a social studies or English class.  For example, explain what fractions are and what they do and how you could use them using sentences and stories.   Then quiz them in a verbal format, such as multiple choice or fill in the blank (where the answers are all words) to see if they’ve retained it.  

    Finally, once they have an understanding like this you can move them into doing calculations using fractions.   Try it, it works for verbal learners! 

  • Anonymous

    We have deteriorated to the depths of an entertainment society. Basic arithmetic conversions, say like from liters to gallons cannot be estimated by many, let alone calculated accurately.  Most people, including adults would need to ‘think hard’ to come up with the number of time zones in the world.  Most would be completely lost as to why a return trip from Europe would take more hours than a trip to Europe.
    There are so many things contributing to this massive ‘dumbing down.’
    A GOP carpenter and Democrat carpenter show up on the job.  Only the Dem has a tape measure. Why?  Because the GOPster has been told and already knows and truly believes he owns the path for how long the boards need to be.

    • homewrecker

      The Dim carpenter has the government to take care of him…always.

  • Fukushima Diary “Pu 239 will be detected at high doses” Iori

  • Languages can enhance easily and deeply, efficiently the meaning for counting and they will help for numbers decomposition : eighteen is 8+10 but eighty is 8×10; eighty one is 80+1=8×10 +1. The rules are repeated (some exceptions like eleven and twelve are a part in the discussion that reinforce the awareness of the rules)…These rules work in other languages. So feel free invite them in the game ! The German for 18 is ” achtzehn” 8+10, 80 is “achtzig” The French for 18 is “dix-huit” 10+8, 80 is “quatre vingt” = 4×20. The spanish for 18 is “dieciocho” 10+8, 80 is “ochenta”8×10 200 is “doscientos”=2×100 We can see that the orders are different the same between the roman languages and the germanic languages. The mandarin for 18 is “shi ba” 10+8, 80 is “ba shi” 8×10…(but it does not mean that the mandarin is a roman language!) I hope this advice will be a good starter for discussions about maths and numbers that are not reserved only for kids. It is important for children to see parents interested in the discussion they have with them, not artificial and nonsense. In resume, we all need meaning for learning.

  • Thanks for sharing! I personally talk numbers all the time to my 4yo without even realizing it. I grew up to a lot of number talk, especially when it came to the cost of things. My parents had 5 children, labor intensive jobs, didn’t have that much money so we had to be very careful with how money was spent. The number talk could have something to do with my love of math 🙂

    Speaking of the cost of things, my 4yo is actually interested in playing shop with us. When we play coffee shop, I would draft out the menu of a few items with prices on it, order something, he would go off and make it, and then we exchange money. It’s fun and you can buy a toy cash register for this. We also have paper money from the dollar store and use our expired credit cards. It’s a great way to learn about numbers and finances 🙂

  • I’d love to see a distinction made between “talking math” and “talking numbers.” Both are important but if you just talk numbers with your children, you are missing and important part of the puzzle.

    See for some more tips for improving your child’s chances of thinking “like a mathematician.”

  • kiki
  • Perce

    Don’t believe anything that comes from the same school that saw fit to graduate our Vice President!!

  • Nice Article .A simple and yet very clear article. Thanks

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