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Math trouble when kids can’t estimate ‘how many’

U. MISSOURI (US) — Preschoolers who have trouble estimating numbers in a group are more than twice as likely than other children to have a math learning disability later, a new study suggests.

“Lacking skill at estimating group size may impede a child’s ability to learn the concept of how numerals symbolize quantities and how those quantities relate to each other,” says study co-author David Geary, professor of psychological sciences at the University of Missouri.

“Not understanding the values numbers symbolize then leads to difficulties in math and problems in school, which our previous studies suggest may be related to later difficulties with employment.”


Parents may be able to improve a child’s innate skill at approximating group size. Caregivers can draw children’s attention to quantities in everyday situations. For example, after a preschool-aged child completes a series of tasks, a parent can ask the youth how many tasks they completed.

“Talking to children about how the world can be represented in numbers may help young people develop the ability to estimate the size of a group, which may prepare them for later mathematics education,” says co-author Kristy vanMarle, assistant professor of psychological science.

“Asking them ‘how many’ whenever they encounter a group of objects or images can help them understand that the world can be understood in terms of numbers.”

However, the inability to approximate group size was not the only factor related to later math problems.

Researchers also found that preschoolers who lagged behind others in their understanding of the symbolic value of numerals and other related concepts were 3.6 to 4.5 times more likely to show mathematical learning difficulties, which corroborates earlier research and extends it to a much younger age.

The research was published in the journal Frontiers in Psychology.

Source: University of Missouri

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