Teaching math in preschool

Preschool teachers are introducing math concepts, reports the Wall Street Journal.  The Early Mathematics Education Project at Erikson Institute is training preschool and kindergarten teachers at high-poverty Chicago schools.

At Lovett Elementary School, where the preschool teacher adopted the new methods, math instruction is omnipresent, if not always apparent. It’s there where 4-year-old Jasmine Wilson arranges four Popsicle sticks into a zigzag pattern under the number “4.” It shows up when Cedric Carter mimics the teacher’s syncopated clapping pattern. And it appears when students join a growing line of characters from “The Gingerbread Man” to chase Anasia Simmons around the room.

The children don’t realize it, but they are learning fundamental math concepts such as connecting numerals to quantity, building patterns, and the idea that adding something, or someone, creates a larger number.

Students of Erikson-trained teachers average three to five months more progress in math than students whose teachers were on the waiting list to get into the program, the institute reports. Children who started far behind in math made the most progress.

Jie-Qi Chen, an Erikson professor who helped develop the project, said proper math instruction helps students develop reasoning and logical thinking skills—cognitive building blocks that prepare them to learn any subject. But she said early math gains in preschool can “wash out” if teachers in elementary grades don’t know how to teach it. And unlike reading, she said, which requires little explicit instruction after a certain level, “math cannot be fully grasped without assistance from a well-trained teacher.”

On any given day, 21 percent of Chicago preschool and kindergarten teachers teach math, while 96 percent teach language arts, a 2007 Erikson study found.

Many early-education teachers are “math phobic,” said Jeanine Brownell, assistant director of programming for Early Mathematics.

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  1. I sometimes wonder how it is that so many people in either the inner city school establishment or the reform movement have managed to avoid learning anything about the origins or principles of the Montessori method.

  2. Yikes! At my kid’s former preschool (a half-day church program, 2-3 days/week) they measured themselves, counted days on the calendar, drew the ‘Five Little Pumkpins’ at Halloween, made simple graphs of how many M&Ms there were of each color in a snack-sized bag, etc. The kids thought it was fun, but it was definitely math.

  3. Deirdre Mundy says:

    Aaron–I agree– How did Montessori, a program originally developed for the poorest of the poor in the tenements of Rome, become a luxury for the upper-middle class? It’s a proven method and it was DESIGNED for children living in poverty. But for some reason, instead of Montessori for all, we got head start. (And if universal pre-K was going to be Montessori rather than the crud we’ll inevitably end up with, I might be able to support it.)

    One problem I see is that many poorer families want “academic” pre-school, and they don’t see Montessori as “academic” because the learning occurs through structured projects and play rather than through call and response and worksheets.

  4. palisadesk says:

    This is an idea whose time has come — again. Zig Engelmann and Carl Bereiter had excellent results with their preschool program at the University of Illinois back in the 1960’s (the children were from a nearby low-income housing project; the control group were middle class kids at a Montessori school).

    They published extensive data on the results, but recently this video of Zig and the kids “strutting their stuff” was made available online:


    Those kids continued to outperform expectations even after the preschool program ended. One of the little girls became an electrical engineer, another a manager of financial services for a major Chicago bank. Their math skills continued to stand them in good stead.

    I can dig up references to the articles about the children’s achievement (pre/post and controls) if anyone is interested.

    In the Engelmann-Bereiter preschool, the math lesson was only 20 minutes per day, and music and art were both used to build math and conceptual learning.

  5. That’s a great video, because it’s such a good demonstration of kids developing strong number sense, and being happy and engaged doing it.

  6. I would hope those stats (27% of preschool teachers teach math) from 2007 have improved since then. I think the issue is that preschool classrooms usually have one direct instruction lesson per day, and since reading is the priority, that’s where the time is spent. Hopefully math is integrated into circle time routines (calendar, etc.) as well as centers.