Children's maths ability is inborn, says new research

Katy Morton
Friday, August 12, 2011

Children are either born with or without a natural talent for maths, according to a new study.

American psychologists from John Hopkins University in Baltimore tested 200 four-year-olds on their number sense, mathematical ability and verbal ability. They considered children of this age too young to have had substantial maths teaching.

Previous research has indicated that ‘number sense’ is basic to humans and is a skill we use daily to estimate numbers.

For the number sense task, children viewed flashing groups of blue and yellow dots on a computer and screen and were asked to estimate which colour dots were more frequent. The speed of the test meant children couldn’t count the dots, only estimate.

The same children were also given a test to measure their maths ability that required them to read Arabic numbers, add or subtract and work out number concepts such as how many sets of 10 are in 100.

To measure children’s verbal ability, parents were asked to indicate the words on a list which they had heard their children say.

The results of the tests show that children who made the most accurate estimations in the number sense task also knew the most about Arabic numerals and arithmetic.

According to the researchers, the findings suggest a link between children’s mathematical ability and their inbuilt ‘number sense’, known as an Approximate Number System (ANS).

Melissa Libertus from the department of Psychological and Brain Sciences at John Hopkins University, who led the study, said, ‘The relationship between ‘number sense’ and maths ability is important and intriguing because we believe that ‘number sense’ is universal, whereas math ability has been thought to be highly dependent on culture and language, and takes many years to learn.

‘A link between the two is surprising and raises many important questions and issues. One of which is whether we can train children’s Approximate Number System and thereby improve their math ability, and if we can develop the school curriculum to make use of children’s ANS abilities and help them grasp more advanced math concepts earlier.’

The study - 'Preschool acuity of the approximate number system correlates with school math ability' is published online in the journal of Developmental Science.

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