What do the connections between early literacy and numeracy mean in preschool?

By Robin Hojnoski, PhD, Associate Professor at Lehigh University

Early literacy and early numeracy are two important skill areas that develop during the early childhood period. Early literacy and numeracy 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.

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.

Because of the importance of early literacy and numeracy skill development for children’s short- and long-term success, research has explored the relation between specific skills in these two domains. Skills frequently targeted in early literacy activities, such as knowing letter names and sounds, rhyming, and knowledge of print concepts, have connections with specific early numeracy skills. 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, through 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 relation 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. A growing body of research supports a relation 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 in 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 mathematics-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 key words related to early mathematics. While earlier studies supported a predictive relation between general language and early mathematical skills, more recent research suggests that it is mathematic language specifically that is essential to numeracy 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 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 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 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 numeracy skills.

We typically think of language as a means of addressing early literacy development through our conversations with young children, direct instruction, and 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 integration of mathematics into a commonly occurring classroom literacy routine, such as preschool booklists curated by Stanford University and the Erikson Institute.

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 retell measures of information, complexity of 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 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 the development of 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.

Looking for more strategies to support literacy and numeracy skills in early childhood? Watch our on-demand webinar to discover how myIGDIs curriculum-based measures will give you actionable insights about your earliest learners’ strengths and instructional needs.

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Robin Hojnoski, PhD, Program Director and Associate Professor
Robin Hojnoski, PhD, Program Director and Associate Professor
Robin Hojnoski, PhD, is Program Director and Associate Professor in the School Psychology Program at Lehigh University in Bethlehem, PA. She is also co-creator of myIGDIs early numeracy measures.

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