Let's Talk About Math

How language plays a pivotal role in math success

by Tim Walsh

I recently attended the Play in Education Conference during Chicago Toy and Game Week and heard Karen Tzanetopoulos speak on the role language plays in learning mathematics. Karen holds a Certificate of Clinical Competence in Speech-Language Pathology (CCC-SLP) and was awarded two grants to study the problems that children have in learning math by the National Science Foundation. 


Karen's presentation illustrated how incorporating math language into play at the earliest ages had long term predictive effects for math success. She shared, "The complexity of structures that children build in younger years corresponds to math success and test scores in high school." Wow. So how do you improve a child's block building ability? By adding

discussion of spatial relationships to the shapes.


"What would this rectangle look like if we rotate it?"

"See this pyramid? How would it look if you were a bird flying above it?"

"If you had two of these equilateral triangles, how could you combine them to make a new shape?"


Questions like these help build a child's visual spatial skill set. Spatial judgement and the ability to visualize with the mind's eye is known as spatial intelligence. Karen cited research from Vanderbilt University that demonstrated "spatial ability plays a critical role in developing expertise in STEM."


Karen's presentation emphasized ways to bridge the gap between boys and girls when it comes to visual spatial skills. "Males demonstrate stronger visual spatial skills from the earliest ages," Karen said. "When building, boys tend to build up and thus incorporate important elements of balance. Through experience and experimentation with visual spatial activities, girls can change their brains and catch up to the level of boys. Girls, in particular, show better improvement with their visual spatial skills when they are exposed to and use corresponding language to help them process the visual spatial tasks. Girls also respond to stories that motivate them to build taller and more complex structures."


And that's no tall tale!


Fun Links Below:

> DREME, a website dedicated to Development and Research in Early Math Education offers some great tips to foster discussions about spatial reasoning with kids during play.

> More on Karen's lecture from Word Finding for Kids

> A spatial dexterity game I designed called You've Been Framed

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