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Early numbers sense has role in math skill

WASHINGTON -- We know a lot about how babies learn to talk, and how youngsters learn to read. Now scientists are unraveling the early building blocks of math, and what children know about numbers as they begin first grade seems to play a big role in how well they do everyday calculations later on.

The findings have specialists considering steps that parents might take to spur math abilities, just as they try to raise a good reader.

Consider: How rapidly can you calculate a tip? Do the fractions to double a recipe? Know how many quarters and dimes the cashier owes in change?

About 1 in 5 U.S. adults lacks the math competence expected of a middle-schooler; they have trouble with those ordinary tasks and aren't qualified for many of today's jobs.

"It's not just, can you do well in school? It's how well can you do in your life?" said Dr. Kathy Mann Koepke of the National Institutes of Health, which is funding much of this research into math cognition. "We are in the midst of math all the time."

University of Missouri researchers tested 180 seventh-graders. Those who lagged in a test of core math skills needed to function as adults were the same kids who'd had the least number sense or fluency back when they started first grade.

"The gap they started with, they don't close it," says Dr. David Geary, a cognitive psychologist. "They're not catching up" to those who started ahead.

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Studies with babies and a variety of animals show that a related ability -- to estimate numbers without counting -- is intuitive, sort of hard-wired in the brain, says Mann Koepke, of the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development. That's the ability that lets you choose the shortest grocery check-out line at a glance.

Some tips:

Don't teach counting solely by reciting numbers. Attach numbers to a noun. "Here are five crayons: One crayon, two crayons . . ." or say, "I need to buy two yogurts" as you pick them from the store shelf -- so they'll absorb the quantity concept.

Talk about distance: How many steps to your ball? How many more to the swing?

Describe shapes: The ellipse is round like a circle, but flatter.

Show children how math is part of daily life, as you make change, or measure ingredients, or decide how soon to leave for a destination 10 miles away.

"We should be talking to our children about magnitude, numbers, distance, shapes as soon as they're born," Koepke said. "More than likely, this is a positive influence on their brain function."

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