Why language makes math so hard for U.S. kids


You may not think of language as a key factor in why Asian students do better in math than U.S. students, but it is.  Have you ever thought about what the word “eleven” means?  Or why  we say “sixteen,” seventeen,” eighteen,” but not “twoteen,” threeteen,” or “fiveteen?” If it’s confusing to us as adults, imagine how a child feels learning his or her counting words for the first time.

In Asian languages, like Korean and Chinese, the counting words are much less confusing because they highlight the tens and ones in each number, which makes it easy to understand our base-ten system.  For example, the number 11 in Formal Korean is called “Ship il” or literally, “ten one.”  Twelve is “Ship ee”  or “ten two.”  Calling 11 “ten one” instead of “eleven” may make it easier for children to see numbers as made up of tens and ones, rather than thinking of large numbers as a collection of ones.  This difference between Asian and non-Asian counting words has sparked a lot of interest in the research world, especially because Asian students do much better in mathematics than U.S. students on standardized tests.

Miura, King, Chang, and Okamoto (1988) set out to test whether language does in fact impact how children conceptualize multi-digit numbers. They had Korean and American Kindergarten and First Grade children show different numbers using classic base ten blocks.  They found that the Korean children were significantly more likely to correctly use base ten blocks to show tens and ones (ex. 4 tens and 2 ones for 42) than American children.  American children, in fact, tended to use only ones blocks to model multi-digit numbers (ex. 42 ones).  Since the base-ten system is the underlying structure of our number system, this linguistic advantage can have serious consequences, especially in terms of understanding written calculation and place value.

So, now that we know about this linguistic disadvantage, what can we do to help kids see that multi-digit numbers are composed of tens and ones and not just a collection of ones?

For more info, check out this article:
Miura, King, Chang & Okamoto (1988).  Effects of language characteristics on children’s cognitive representation of number: Cross-national comparisons. Child Development, 59, 1445-1450.

Soft skills may outweigh smarts


So I successfully defended my dissertation this week (Yeah!), and now can pay  a bit more attention to this blog. I wrote this response to a This American Life episode a few months ago but never got around to publishing it. It may not be timely, but I hope it’s still relevant…

Recently This American Life featured an interview with Paul Tough about his new book, reminding us that just being smart isn’t enough; kids also need something else to succeed. On the show, they dance around what to call these non-cognitive skills… social skills, character, personality. I like to think of them as soft skills, the ability to get along, pursue interests, and persevere. In the long run these may be just as important as reading and math ability. 

Whenever folks talk about the effects of these soft skills, they inevitably bring up the marshmallow test, that now-famous way to torture your three-year-old in the name of science. (If you haven’t yet done so, check out the videos on youtube. Hilarious!) Basically, how long kids can wait before eating the marshmallow predicts how successful they’ll be as adults, everything from graduation rates to career success to divorce rates.

All of this got me thinking about Head Start, which often gets attacked because the improvements in test scores fade over time. But what it does do may be more important than those math and reading scores. Attending Head Start makes you more likely to graduate from high school and less likely to end up in jail, which are better measures of success than test scores anyway.

It also reminded me of my own classroom, where I valued independence and inquiry in addition to academics, spending more time teaching children to ask great questions and persevere rather than on test prep.

But now I design math software. My goal is to improve math ability. Given the importance of these soft skills, is this no longer a priority? Clearly math is still important, but the way we deliver the content may also matter. In the show they discussed one major barrier to developing these social skills: STRESS. I’m betting that getting a chance to learn math from a game instead of a workbook will have two effects: 1) teach math better and 2) lower school stress, both of which contribute to later success.

What do you think?