Why Students Home Schooled In Math Score Higher On General Vocabulary

A new study published in the Journal of Experimental Child Psychology reveals that students whose parents teach them math at home from an early age not only improve their math skills but their language skills as well. Researchers at Purdue University in Indiana found that children who discussed math-related concepts at home scored highly when tested for general vocabulary, even more consistently than children who only received exposure to reading and writing at home.

Working with 116 preschool children, ages 3-5, the researchers evaluated performance in math and language arts courses during the fall and spring of the school year, tracking the relationship between exposure to math at home and performance in both math and literacy activities at school. The team discovered that when parents discussed math-related concepts, like counting and comparing numbers, with their children, those children performed better at school not only in math lessons but in language-related lessons as well.

Doctoral student Amy Napoli, who led the study, summarises it this way: “Exposure to basic numbers and math concepts at home were predictive, even more so than storybook reading or other literacy-rich interactions, of improving preschool children’s general vocabulary.”

In other words, there appears to be something about discussing math that gives children a verbal leg-up from an early age. But why, exactly?

Napoli and her team believe one reason could be “the dialogue that happens when parents are teaching their children about math and asking questions about values and comparisons, which helps these young children improve their oral language skills.”

While teaching their children how to express or solve a problem, parents must explain their reasoning and thought processes, which in turn prompts questions and further discussion.

Another consideration, Napoli says, is that engaging in math “exposes children to vocabulary that they may not be exposed to in other contexts.”

“We don’t often think about it, but during the early years especially, math really is very language-based. Before children learn the meanings of written numbers and move toward more complex calculations, a lot of the math that they engage in is verbal. Participating in these verbal interactions with their parents may boost general vocabulary as well.”

Teachers can benefit from these findings as well as parents, as it doesn’t seem to be the “home schooling” aspect so much as the discussion aspect of teaching math that contributes to higher vocabulary. When students must interpret and describe numerical concepts using words, it’s no big leap to assume they are stretching their capacity to describe concepts in general.

For parents hesitant to teach math at home, Napoli says it’s not about expertise—it’s about the conversation. Even simple discussions about adding or subtracting can make a difference. Napoli recommends talking about counting, connecting numbers to quantities, and comparing values. It also helps to “make counting purposeful,” such as “there are three cookies for a snack” rather than “there are cookies for a snack.”

“When working with families, there is a math-related anxiety aspect and that is probably why more parents focus on literacy than on math,” Napoli says. “But, if you can count, then you can teach something to your child.”


Saga Briggs is Managing Editor of InformED. You can follow her on Google+ or @sagamilena

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