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Math Talk with Preschoolers...Say What?

Posted by on in Early Childhood
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When we think about developing math and pre-math skills with preschool children, we usually imagine some explicit, teacher-directed activities that lead children to a correct answer. However, a lot of really significant math learning takes place within the context of classroom play, when teachers are talking with children about problems involving number, quantity, or size.

Young children are developmentally tuned-in to learn number sense in preschool. And, the more we talk with them about number, the more they learn. This can be done in just about any context.


During snack time:

    “How much more juice do you want?”

    “A big more.”

    “A lot more?”

    “Yes. The same like Jeffry.”

    “Ok. Put your cup next to Jeffrey’s. Watch now. Tell me when they are the same.”


At last circle before dismissal:

    “What will you put into your backpack, Owen?”

    “My painting and my hat and my Show and Tell.”

    “That’s three things- your hat and your painting and your Show and Tell!”

    “One, two, three!”

In the Block Center:

     “Who will go in this little door?”

     “This blue guy.”

     “How do you know if he fits?”

     “I just push him in.”

     “Does he fit?”

     “No. He’s too fat.”

     “Should we make the door a little bigger?”

     “Yes. A lot bigger!”

It becomes more about talking through the process of doing things than focusing exclusively on a correct solution. When teachers ask questions about finding solutions, children are promoting mathematical competence.


At the Art Table:

      “Do you need some tape?”

      “Yes. A long tape.”

      “How long do you want it to be?”

      “Really, really long!”

      “OK. You tell me when it’s long enough.”

We can engage children in activities and discussions around number- when counting, estimating amounts, or moving a game piece a certain number of spaces. These types of interactions strengthen understanding.

    “How many spaces do you need to get to the star?”


     “Do you think three?”


     “OK. Count.”

     “One, two, three. That’s the moon, not the star!”

     “So how many do you need to get to the star?”

     “One, two, three, four!”

When teachers use complex language about math and also encourage them to talk to themselves or others, they tend to learn more concepts.

     “How tall do you think this tower needs to be?”

     “Very, very tall- like to outer space! You need a rocket to get to the top!"

A child may explain how they came to know that two things were not the same size- by using a ruler or by putting them side by side. His ability to explain the process can be scaffolded by questions from the teacher.

     “How did you figure out if Captain America would fit in that box?”

     “We had to measure him.”

     “How did you do that?”

     “With that ruler over there.”

When we have these conversations, children aren’t just saying what answers they got, which is what is typically expected. Instead, they talk about what they did in order to solve problems.


Research in this area finds that when a child verbalizes his problem, he is actually looking for a solution. His mind starts to put the words into a solution pattern.

I think we really tend to underestimate the abilities of preschoolers. We can see them comparing and counting and measuring during play. And, when we combine that with well-timed and appropriate questions and scaffolding by teachers, there can be significant increases in mathematical thinking and understanding.

Language is really important in learning. Think about ways you can incorporate math talk into daily routines, as well as those spontaneous moments during play that hold so much potential.

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Debra Pierce is professor of Early Childhood Education at Ivy Tech Community College of Indiana. Ivy Tech is the nation's largest singly accredited statewide community college systems, serving nearly 200,000 students annually.

Her professional background has always involved children, over the past 40 years, having been a primary grades teacher in the Chicago Public School system, a teacher of 3 and 4 year-olds in a NAEYC accredited preschool for 15 years, and a certified Parent Educator for the National Parents as Teachers Program.

Debra is a certified Professional Development Specialist for the Council for Professional Recognition. She has taught CDA courses to high school career/tech dual credit juniors and seniors in preparation for earning their CDA credentials. She also conducts CDA train-the-trainer events across the country and develops and teaches online CDA courses for several states, is a frequent presenter at national and state early childhood conferences, and is a Master Trainer for the states of Minnesota and Arizona. She was also awarded the NISOD Teaching Excellence Award by the University of Texas.

Debra is active in her community, supporting children's literacy and is on the board of directors of First Book in Indianapolis. Debra is a contributing author for Hamilton County Family Magazine and Indy's Child in Indianapolis.
She loves spending time with her two grandsons, Indy, who is 7 and Radley, 3.

Debra has spent the last 16 years dedicated to the success of those pursuing the CDA credential and is the author of The CDA Prep Guide: The Complete Review Manual for the Child Development Associate Credential, now in its third edition (Redleaf Press), the only publication of its kind. She hosts a website providing help and support to CDA candidates and those who train them at http://www.easycda.com
The comments and views expressed are not in collaboration or affiliation with The Council for Professional Recognition or Ivy Tech Community College.
Follow me on Twitter at /easycda

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