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Kids understand multi-digit numbers as early as age 3


The research suggests students may be ready for more direct math instruction when they enter school

childrenWashington: Children as young as 3 understand multi-digit numbers better than previously believed, a new study has found.

The research, led by a Michigan State University education scholar, suggests students may be ready for more direct math instruction when they enter school.

“Contrary to the view that young children do not understand place value and multi-digit numbers, we found that they actually know quite a lot about it,” said Kelly Mix, MSU professor of educational psychology and co-author of the study.

“They are more ready than we think when they enter kindergarten,” Mix said. Understanding place value is the gateway to higher math skills such as addition with carrying, and there is a strong tie between place value skills in early elementary grades and problem-solving ability later on.

“In short, children who fail to place value face chronic low achievement in mathematics,” the study said.

In several experiments, Mix and Richard Prather and Linda Smith, both from Indiana University, tested children ages 3 to 7 on their ability to identify and compare two- and three-digit numbers.

In one task, for example, children were shown two quantities (such as 128 and 812) and asked to point out which was larger.

“There was significant improvement in interpreting place value from age 3 to 7 but it was remarkable that even the youngest children showed at least some understanding of multi-digit numbers,” Mix said.

Mix said the surprising findings are likely due to the fact that children in today’s society are bombarded with multi-digit numbers – from phone numbers to street addresses to price tags.

Interestingly, children may be developing partial knowledge of the place value system at least partly from language, she explained.

Children often hear multi-digit numbers named while also seeing them in print, such as when parents comment on a calendar, ask their child to push the elevator buttons or look for a room number in an office building.

The study was published in the journal Child Development.


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