WASHINGTON – Children as young as 3 can understand the meaning and value of multidigit numbers and might be more ready for direct math instruction when they begin formal schooling than previously believed, according to new research by developmental psychologists.
“Contrary to the view that young children do not understand place value and multidigit numbers, we found that they actually know quite a lot about it,” said Kelly Mix, a professor of educational psychology at Michigan State University and a lead investigator on the study.
“They certainly haven’t mastered it, but the new insight is that they can pick up on patterns, start to make inferences, and they’re starting kindergarten with a lot more partial knowledge than what people have believed,” said Mix, who worked with Richard Prather and Linda Smith, both of Indiana University.
The research comes as teachers, policymakers and government officials have been increasingly dismayed by U.S. students’ math performance on international benchmark exams. This month, the results of a well-regarded international exam placed U.S. teenagers at below average in math compared with their counterparts in 64 other countries and economies.
Educators and researchers have long assumed that children do not have the capacity to fully understand place value and to accurately compute multidigit numbers until at least second grade. The ability to add and subtract multidigit numbers is a gateway skill, an important prerequisite for higher-order math.
Researchers had dismissed the abilities of younger children to handle multidigit numbers because they make frequent errors. But Mix said those kinds of errors are often “intelligent” mistakes that belie at least a partial grasp of the underlying math.
What’s more, young learners can be taught to improve their calculations, she said.
Funded with a $1.5 million grant from the U.S. Education Department and published this week in the journal Child Development, the research examined how well children aged 3 to 7 could identify and compare two- and three-digit numbers.