Very young children appear to have a better understanding of multi-digit numbers that previously thought. It's likely 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. (Credit: iStockphoto)

Kids figure out big numbers as early as age 3

Children as young as 3 understand multi-digit numbers and may be ready for more direct math instruction when they enter school, new research shows.

“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,” says Kelly Mix, professor of educational psychology at Michigan State University. “They are more ready than we think when they enter kindergarten.”

Understanding place value is the gateway to higher math skills such as addition with carrying, and there is a strong tie 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,” the study states.

For the study, published in the journal Child Development, researchers tested children ages 3 to 7 on their ability to identify and compare two- and three-digit numbers.

In one task, for example, children were shown two quantities (such as 128 and 812) and asked to point out which was larger.

“There was significant improvement in interpreting place value from age 3 to 7,” Mix says, “but it was remarkable that even the youngest children showed at least some understanding of multi-digit numbers.”

Numbers everywhere

The surprising findings are likely 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.

Interestingly, children may be developing partial knowledge of the place value system at least partly from language, Mix says.

Children often 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.

Previous research and teacher observations indicate children do not understand the symbols for place value—and, thus, multi-digit numbers—until well into elementary school. Typically, young students receive specialized conceptual instruction on place value, such as with place value blocks.

The researchers trained children on place value blocks and found no improvement. However, training with written symbols alone did yield significant benefits.

Because of this, and the study’s finding that students already recognize multi-digit numbers to some degree, Mix says more direct instruction with place value and multi-digit numbers should be considered in the early grades.

Richard Prather and Linda Smith, both from Indiana University, are study co-authors.

Source: Michigan State University

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