Children are not blank slates. From the moment they’re born, they observe and try to make sense of the world. So it shouldn’t come as a surprise that children develop ideas about math and numbers even before they are formally taught. What might surprise some elementary school teachers is that their students may be ready for multi-digit numbers sooner than previously thought.
“Both research and the observations of teachers indicate that place-value notation is difficult for school age children to learn,” acknowledges a recent study. ”However, multi-digit numerals are ubiquitous in children’s environments – as room numbers, phone numbers, and street addresses; in books, calendars, and menus; and throughout stores on packing, price tags, and signs.” And this exposure, even if limited, may be enough to give children an idea of how multi-digit numbers work – for example, two-digit numbers almost always have an “ee” sound (twenty, thirty, etc.), and “hundred” indicates a three-digit number.
Previous studies of children using base-10 blocks seemed to reinforce the idea that preschoolers are not ready for multi-digit numbers, but the result of this study suggest that children do better with symbol-based instruction than base-10 blocks. Furthermore, “preschool children know enough about how large numbers are written to map them to their spoken names and to judge relative magnitudes.” They know, for example, that numbers are read from left to right, and that digits on the left mean larger amounts than digits to the right.
Overall, the study found it possible to significantly increase young children’s understanding of multi-digit numbers, but emphasizes that further study is needed. But if you’re a preschool or elementary teacher, don’t discount the idea that your kids may be able to handle multi-digit numbers.
Winifred Kehl is a science communicator and museum exhibit designer in Seattle, WA. You can find her online at www.winifredkehl.com.