Phonics and phonology (the study of the patterns of sounds in spoken language) may help children develop better maths skills, according to new research.
Discussion of the sounds in words, or identification of individual letters, are more likely to result in the growth of early numeracy skills than reading stories or counting, academics at Liverpool John Moores University found.
As part of the Liverpool Early Number Skills Project (LENS), funded by the Nuffield Foundation, researchers observed more than 200 children from 40 early years settings in North West England from the spring term of their pre-school year to the Summer term of Reception.
The final research project, ‘Understanding the influence of cognition and the home learning environment on early number skills’, examined how two types of home learning affected children’s numeracy skills:
- Meaning–focused home learning experiences, involving interactions around the meaning of words, sentences or stories, such as shared reading
- Code-focused home learning experiences, involving emphasis on the phonological and orthographic structure of language, such as discussing letter-sound relationships (phonics) or the sounds within spoken words (phonology)
Researchers found code-focused practices were more powerful predictors of early number skills at the end of the Reception year than meaning-focused activities or any activities focusing on number or quantity.
They suggested interactions which focused on discussing the sounds in words or identifying letters might develop both literacy and numeracy skills by helping children get to grips with the idea that symbols have meaning.
Parents and practitioners should be encouraged to carry out these interactions with children, according to the study, and could do so informally as part of activities, such as singing songs or sharing rhymes or books.
Co-investigator Dr Anne-Marie Adams said, ‘Much less is understood about the pre-school home-based practices which foster children’s early numeracy skills compared to their literacy development. Our research is an important first step in addressing this imbalance.
‘The evidence indicates that interactions in the home which focus around the sounds in words and the letters that represent them may support pre-school children’s early number skills development.
‘This may be through improving phonological processing skills, which may for example be useful in supporting knowledge of the counting sequence, or it may be through fostering an understanding that symbols have meaning, allowing children to connect quantities to numbers.’
However, as the research did not assess formal systematic phonics instruction, Dr Adams warned against taking the findings as support for the phonics system.
‘We would not propose that our research advocates the use of formal phonics teaching with pre-school children. The activities studied represented informal discussions about letters and sounds which were integrated into pre-schoolers’ everyday activities,’ she said.