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Early Interaction Can Narrow Math, Science, Vocabulary Achievement Gaps

Experts discussed the origins of achievement gaps and how to eliminate them during an Annual Meeting press briefing. | Carla Schaffer/AAAS

Interactions at home and participation in museum and after-school programs for children can eliminate achievement gaps in math, vocabulary and science among those from low-income families, according to several researchers at the 2017 AAAS Annual Meeting in Boston.

Much of the emphasis on eliminating achievement gaps between children from low-income and their high-income peers has focused on what schools can do, said Susan Levine, a professor of psychology at the University of Chicago. Yet, opportunities for learning extend well beyond formal education institutions.

“There’s increasing evidence that we need to leverage not only schools – schools are important – but also all the learning opportunities and resources that exist for children outside of school,” said Levine.

Income-related achievement gaps in math start as early as kindergarten, but interactions at home between parents and children can begin when a child is a 1-year-old and lead to improvements in math learning and achievement, said Elizabeth Gunderson, assistant professor of psychology at Temple University.

Just talking to children about numbers is “a strong predictor of early number knowledge,” Gunderson added. When parents talk more with their young children about numbers, those children are better able to grasp what numbers represent – that the word “four” applies to a set of four objects, for instance.

Gunderson’s team sought to boost conversations about numbers, so they created a series of books for children between the ages of 2½ and 4. Some of the books emphasized numbers, while others replaced the numbers with adjectives. When parents read the books about numbers to their children about four times a week for a month, children’s number knowledge expanded substantially, Gunderson said. Researchers saw gains similar to what might be expected over three to four months of natural interactions, she noted.

In a separate study, Gunderson found that certain types of praise for very young children have implications on children’s math achievement levels years later. Previous research has found that “process-oriented praise” – praising children for their actions rather than their characteristics, like “good job” or “great work” – can provide children with a “positive growth mindset” that is associated with more persistence after failure and better academic outcomes, Gunderson added. When parents used process-oriented praise for 1-, 2- and 3-year-olds, their children were more likely to embody this mindset in second and third grade, and that was predictive higher math achievement in fourth grade, she noted.

“The home environment and the way that parents talk to their kids about numbers specifically and also how they praise them – even when the kids are only 1, 2 and 3 – seems to have a really big impact on their math achievement, both early on and throughout elementary school,” Gunderson noted.

Vocabulary gaps also appear as early as kindergarten, with some children starting kindergarten with vocabularies four times as large as their peers, said Meredith Rowe, associate professor at Harvard University’s Graduate School of Education.

Even among 1-year-olds, there is a socioeconomic gap in an infant’s use of gestures, such as pointing – which predicts later vocabulary use, Rowe said. To close these gaps, “we really need to start before school,” when the gaps are emerging and widening, she said.

Rowe’s lab created an intervention study with low-income families focused on parents’ use of gestures with their infants to help jump-start their later vocabulary use.

Results from the ongoing study are promising, Rowe said. “Parents are gesturing more, children are gesturing more and hopefully we’re going to boost their vocabularies by the time they enter school.”

Programs outside the home can also help boost children’s science and engineering knowledge, said Christine Cunningham, vice president of the Museum of Science in Boston and the founding director of the program Engineering Is Elementary.

Traditionally, after-school and museum programs about science have focused on the natural world, without too much attention on the human-made world of engineering, Cunningham noted. Engineering Is Elementary has sought to take advantage of “natural inclinations that children have to problem-solve and create” to foster understanding of engineering, especially among those underrepresented in the field.

She found that children who participate in engineering programs not only learn engineering and technology concepts better. The engineering programs also helped children absorb science concepts better, Cunningham said.

Their understanding increased further when “inclusive design principles” – concepts like collaboration intended to make engineering accessible and appealing to all children – were woven into the fabric of the engineering curriculum, Cunningham added.

[Associated image: Carla Schaffer/AAAS]