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First Grade Math Skills Set Foundation for Later Math Ability

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Researchers funded by the Child Development and Behavior Branch recently showed that children who failed to acquire a basic math skill in first grade scored far behind their peers by seventh grade on a test of the mathematical abilities needed to function in adult life.

The basic skill is known as number system knowledge—the ability to relate a quantity to the printed word and numerical symbol that represent it, and to manipulate quantities. For example, three dots can be represented by the numeral 3 and by the numerals 2 plus 1. Number system knowledge is the basis for all other learned mathematical abilities and a key component of numeracy (the ability to reason about numbers and magnitudes), a necessary ability to function as an adult member of society. For example, numeracy means understanding enough algebra to answer a question such as: “If an item costs $1.40 and you give the clerk $2, how many quarters and how many dimes should you get back?” Estimates suggest that more than 20% of U.S. adults do not have the eighth grade math skills needed to function in the workplace. 

Importantly, the researchers noted that intelligence, language skills, and the method students used to make their computations is not related to the differences in demonstrating numeracy between children who acquire number system knowledge early and those who do not.

The study findings suggest that early efforts to help children overcome difficulty in acquiring number system knowledge could have significant long-term benefits (PMID: 23382934).

More information about the study is available at:

Last Reviewed: 06/19/2014
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