August 1, 2019
Early literacy and early numeracy are two important skills that develop during the early childhood period. These skills are critical for early school success, and children’s performance in these areas tends to be stable over time (e.g., Missall, Mercer, Martinez, & Casebeer, 2012; Morgan, Farkas, & Wu, 2011).
Furthermore, these two skill areas appear to be related to one another. For example, young children with delays in literacy skill development are often delayed in early math skills as well (Krajewski & Schneider, 2009). Plus, there is growing evidence that both early literacy and early numeracy skills are strong predictors of children’s long-term achievement (e.g., Duncan et al., 2007; Watts, Duncan, Siegler, & Davis-Kean, 2014), with early numeracy emerging as the strongest predictor of later success.
As the foundations of lifelong learning, literacy and numeracy skills empower students to think critically, make meaning, and reach their full potential.
What is the difference between literacy skills and numeracy skills?
Literacy is defined as the ability to read and write, whereas numeracy refers to the ability to understand simple math concepts. Both are essential skills needed in day-to-day life and are considered basic employability skills for most workplaces.
What is literacy?
As defined by UNESCO, literacy is:
“The ability to identify, understand, interpret, create, communicate, and compute, using printed and written materials associated with varying contexts. Literacy involves a continuum of learning in enabling individuals to achieve their goals, to develop their knowledge and potential, and to participate fully in their community and wider society.”
Literacy provides the key to communicating and interacting with the world. While reading and writing abilities differ around the world, the role of literacy remains the same—for students to become socially engaged citizens.
What is numeracy?
Numeracy can be defined as the ability to comprehend and apply basic math concepts in real-world scenarios. Addition, subtraction, multiplication, and division are considered basic math concepts.
Every day, people make a variety of decisions that may require numerical problem-solving, understanding, and processing.
Connecting early literacy and numeracy skills
We typically think of early literacy and numeracy skills as separate areas of development. Generally, we assess these skills using different tasks, and we use different instructional activities to promote skill acquisition in these areas.
However, research suggests that there are important cognitive connections between early literacy and numeracy skill development that may help us to think more broadly about children’s early academic learning. Ultimately, we can use this information to create rich environments that support both early literacy and numeracy skill development.
Developing literacy and numeracy skills for short- and long-term success
Because of the importance of early literacy and numeracy skill development for children’s short- and long-term success, research has explored the relationship between specific skills in these two domains.
Skills frequently targeted in early literacy activities have connections with specific early numeracy skills. These skills include:
- Knowing letter names and sounds
- Knowledge of print concepts
For example, in one study, letter and number naming were found to be highly related in preschool (Piasta, Purpura, & Wagner, 2010). In another study, general print knowledge, including letter and sound identification, was shown to be uniquely related to early numeracy skills one year later (Purpura, Hume, Sims, & Lonigan, 2011).
Letter knowledge also predicted children’s ability to subtract and add in a story context, while rhyming ability predicted subtraction and addition with concrete materials (Davidse, Jong, & Bus, 2014).
Although the specific skills investigated varied, the overall conclusion is that early literacy and numeracy are likely influenced by some of the same broader cognitive skills, and—more specifically—by children’s developing language.
Why is language so important to early literacy and numeracy?
During the early childhood period, young children’s language skills are growing rapidly, and children’s developing language appears to underlie both literacy- and numeracy-related skill development.
The relationship between language development and early literacy has been well documented (e.g., Cooper, Roth, Speece, & Schatschneider, 2002), and we are now beginning to understand more about how language input influences early numeracy.
For example, to be able to rhyme, children must hear the sound structure of language, and for counting or identifying numbers, children must have a verbal representation or words for numbers.
What does the research say about the connection between literacy and numeracy skills?
A growing body of research supports a relationship between general language skills, particularly vocabulary, and early numeracy skills. General vocabulary knowledge, for example, is related to number-word knowledge in children as young as two years old (Negen & Sarnecka, 2012).
Children’s ability to define specific words has been associated with a range of numeracy skills in kindergarten (Foster, Anthony, Clements, & Sarama, 2015; Purpura, Schmitt, & Ganley, 2017) and preschool (Purpura & Napoli, 2015). In fact, language skills have been associated with differences between children for nearly all early numeracy skills (Purpura & Ganley, 2014).
One theory suggests there are different cognitive pathways to mathematical competence, one of which is a linguistic, or language-based, path (LeFevre et al., 2010). Another theory proposes that many language-based and mathematical skills involve reasoning about relationships: between a sequence of events in the case of narrative, and between numbers and operations in mathematics (Devlin, 2000).
The importance of mathematical language in early childhood
As children develop language more generally, they are also developing mathematic-specific language. As early as age three, many children have developed a significant repertoire of mathematical language, which is defined as a child’s understanding and use of keywords related to early mathematics.
While earlier studies supported a predictive relation between general language and early numeracy skills, more recent research suggests that mathematical language, specifically, is essential to mathematical performance (Purpura & Reid, 2016).
Research with young children suggests there are two dimensions of mathematical language that are important for early mathematical learning (Purpura, Napoli, Wehrspann, & Gold, 2017; Purpura & Reid, 2016):
The first dimension of mathematical language
The first dimension is quantitative language, or the use of terms such as “more than,” “less than,” etc. (Barner, Chow & Yang, 2009). These words help children to describe and compare sets of objects (“This one has more than that one”) or numbers ( “Seven is more than five”). Multiple experiences with these words and their associated concepts build children’s quantitative knowledge (Purpura & Reid, 2016).
The second dimension of mathematical language
The second dimension is spatial language (Pruden, Levine, & Huttenlocher, 2011). Spatial language includes words such as “under,” “above,” and “next to.” Children’s understanding and use of spatial language supports their spatial thinking, defined as their ability to mentally represent the positions of objects and identify objects from various perspectives (Frick, Ferrara, & Newcombe, 2013).
These spatial skills have been linked to mathematical competence (Cheng & Mix, 2014; Verdine, Irwin, Golinkoff, & Hirsh-Pasek, 2014). Interestingly, the development of both quantitative and spatial language appears to be shaped by the kinds of experiences and interactions that young children have with their caregivers (e.g., Gunderson & Levine, 2011; Jirout & Newcombe, 2015; Pruden, Levine, & Huttenlocher, 2011).
How to support mathematical language in the classroom
What do these connections between early literacy and numeracy mean in the preschool classroom? If we focus on language as a foundation for skills in both areas, research suggests that rich language environments may support the development of both early literacy and early numeracy skills.
We typically think of language as a means of addressing early literacy development through:
- Our conversations with young children
- Direct instruction
- Activities such as shared book reading
These same kinds of interactions are important in promoting numeracy development as well—particularly when these interactions have a mathematical focus.
For example, preschool teachers’ use of math talk was related to children’s growth in mathematics over the course of the year (Klibanoff, et al., 2006), and adults and children talk more about mathematical topics when reading mathematically oriented storybooks (Hojnoski, Columba, & Polignano, 2014).
Moreover, shared book reading can be intentionally and systematically structured to support children’s development of mathematical language (e.g., Hendrix, Hojnoski, & Missall, 2019; Purpura, Napoli, Wehrspann, & Gold, 2017), while at the same time modeling early literacy skills, such as concepts about print and the reading process.
Adults can purposefully select books with a mathematical focus for small-group reading. Key mathematical vocabulary and concepts can be identified prior to sharing the book with children to ensure that these points are emphasized in the activity. Book reading can then be followed by hands-on experiences that reinforce vocabulary and concepts and support children’s skill development.
Quality online resources are available to support the integration of mathematics into a commonly occurring classroom literacy routine, such as preschool book lists curated by Stanford University and the Erikson Institute.
Supporting literacy through a stronger focus on mathematics
A stronger focus on mathematics can also lead to increased literacy skills. For instance, children receiving a mathematics curriculum outperformed those receiving typical instruction on story-retelling measures of information, the complexity of the narrative, and inferential reasoning (Sarama, Lange, Clements, & Wolfe, 2012).
As we engage young children in language-rich interactions, whether they are literacy or mathematically focused, we can encourage the:
- Vocabulary development,
- Increasingly complex grammar,
- Conceptual development, and
- Reasoning skills that are important to both literacy and numeracy skill acquisition.
As the researchers Betty Hart and Todd Risley (1995) noted several decades ago, the language environment of young children is critical to their overall development. We now know that language is particularly important for developing both early literacy and numeracy skills.
As early childhood educators, our efforts to create language-rich environments are essential to supporting skill development in areas that are critical to children’s long-term school success.
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