Parents begin teaching children well before schooling starts. Obviously.
In fact, parents often teach children topics that we might consider “academic”: say, how to read, or, how to count.
Researchers might investigate this parental pre-school teaching with some reasonable hypotheses.
Presumably, the way that parents teach reading influences the reading skills that their children develop.
Likewise, presumably, the way parents teach numbers and counting influences the math skills that their children develop.
Let’s ask a more counter-intuitive question:
Does the way that parents teach reading influence their children’s math skills?
In other words, does early teaching in one discipline influence understand in a different discipline?
That question might raise skeptical eyebrows, for a number of reasons. In particular, most research that asks this kind of transfer question comes back with a negative answer.
That is: learning in one discipline (say: playing piano) doesn’t usually make you better at another discipline (say: doing calculus).
Researchers in England wanted to explore this surprising hypothesis. They had hundreds of parents fill out questionnaires. Some questions focused on parental approaches to reading:
How often does the child discuss the meaning of a story with an adult?
How often is the child encouraged to name letters or sound out words?
Other questions focused on parental approaches to numbers:
How often is the child encouraged to identify numbers in books or the environment?
They then tested the children on a variety of number and math skills.
Can you put two ducks in the pond?
Can you point to the number 5?
If two horses are on the path, and another joins them, how many horses are on the path?
So, what did they find? Did either of the reading approaches predict number and math skill? Did they predict those skills better than the parents’ direct focus on numbers and math?
Yes, and yes.
The parents’ approach to reading predicted math success better than the parents’ focus on numbers.
And, when comparing the two approaches to reading,
A focus on letters and sounds led to better math performance than did a focus on the meaning of the story.
In the dry language of research:
Only letter-sound interactions could predict statistically significant unique variance in counting, number transcoding and calculation.
What Should Parents Do?
This research pool is deep and complicated, and — as far as I can see — we’re not yet able to offer definitive parenting advice.
So, this study found that parental focus on letter-sound interactions improved later math skills.
Self-reports aren’t always reliable (although they’re very common in this field), and
The differences weren’t all that great, and
We have many different goals when we teach children to read.
That is: if our only goal were to help students understand numbers, then this study would encourage parents to focus substantially on letter-sound relationships.
But, of course, we want our children to think about the meaning of stories too. That’s one way they learn important developmental lessons. That’s how they think about meaning in their own lives.
This study — especially if it’s confirmed by later research — encourages us to use several strategies to teach our children about words and reading.
And, it gives us reason to think that those multiple approaches will help them with books, and with numbers too.