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Susan Levine traces kids' math skills back to early parent-talk

AAAS Fellow Susan Levine Levine's research addresses fundamental questions about how preschool children develop knowledge of mathematics, including spatial knowledge. (Photo: University of Chicago)

When AAAS Fellow Susan Levine conducted a study of conversations between parents and children, she expected to learn more about the effect of parent-talk on children's language development. Instead, she discovered something that intrigued her even more and changed the course of her research career: the ways parents and kids talked (or didn't talk) about mathematics.

Since then, Levine has expanded the scope of her research to address fundamental questions about how preschool children develop knowledge of mathematics, including spatial knowledge. Her work, which emerges from an interest in the malleability of the brain early in life, demonstrates how parents and other caregivers can enhance the mathematical learning in young children.

"I began to closely examine the [conversation] videos," said Levine, a professor of psychology at the University of Chicago. She noticed that some parents were counting, pointing out the shapes of objects, and making other references to mathematics. "And I also noticed there was great variation among families in the amount and quality of math talk," she said.

"Before we did the study, we had no idea how much math children are exposed to in the home. And we had no idea about the differences among families. If parents don't like math, or feel anxious about it, they are probably not going to talk much about math to their children," she explained. 

Levine's math studies are part of a collaborative, longitudinal study with fellow University of Chicago psychology professor Susan Goldin-Meadow that involves 40 children with perinatal brain injury and 60 typically developing children, beginning when children were 14 months of age. They are focused on identifying the particular aspects of early language input that predict children's language development as well as higher-order thinking skills, which are critical to their school achievement. 

Extrapolating from the tapes, Levine has pulled out all of the number words and spatial terms that were said by parents and children. "We determined that that parents varied enormously in their number-talk—some parents used about 93,000 number words a year with their young children, whereas others used as few as 1,500," she said.

Her research showed that the number of math words children heard correlated with their math knowledge as they grew up, and related to their preparedness in kindergarten—one predictor of their later math success. Similarly, Levine and her research team showed that learning to use a wide range of spatial words (such as tall, short, curved, straight, circle, rectangle) can predict children's later spatial thinking, which in turn is important to success in STEM disciplines.

"The results of these studies are correlational. Because of this, we are following up on them by conducting experiments to test whether there is a causal connection between early exposure to math talk and later math knowledge," she said.

Her drive to improve learning for children has prompted her to work with a group of scholars from around the country who are developing a research project aimed at identifying ways to increase the math exposure that parents and early childcare educators provide to young children. "In another project, I am working on a formative assessment that preschool teachers can use to guide the math instruction they provide to children in their classes," said Levine, who also consults on preschool curriculum.

In addition to Levine's work on the role of early math talk on children's math development, she and colleagues are studying the emotional side of math, examining how factors such as math anxiety can impact children's math achievement. They are also studying how the negative feelings that parents and teachers often hold about mathematics relate to the math learning and attitudes of children.

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AAAS Fellow Susan Levine Levine's research addresses fundamental questions about how preschool children develop knowledge of mathematics, including spatial knowledge. (Photo: University of Chicago)
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