Don’t help with homework! Talk about math instead.

A couple of interesting pieces of research have been published recently involving parents, children, and math. There’s good news and bad news. But the best news is that the good outweighs the bad.

The short version.

Don’t do this.

Do this.


Bad news first.

When parents who are anxious about math help their kids with homework, they tend to pass that anxiety along. This has a negative impact on children’s learning. The researchers ruled out genetic effects as a leading cause, isolating amount of time spent helping with homework.

Now the good news.

The same research team looked at usage of the Bedtime Math app and found that even small amounts of use with children by parents who are anxious about math resulted in substantial gains in school math achievement.

The researchers are careful to point out that the study was designed not as a test of this particular intervention, but of the idea that non-homework-based math talk could be more supportive of kids’ learning than homework help. What the Bedtime Math app seemed to do in these cases is make talking about math something that kids and parents do together. No pressure; no deadlines; no “ways to do it”.

Maybe parents started to talk more about numbers with their kids as a result. Maybe kids started to talk more about numbers with their parents. Maybe parents started to notice kids’ math talk more often. The team hasn’t studied this yet. But when math-anxious parents used the app as little as once every other week, it seems to have opened up a world of math talk in the home.

An important subfinding is that the app had no effect in homes where parents like math! My kids won’t benefit from this app because we already talk about shapes and numbers in our daily lives.


Talking about numbers and shapes as they arise in our daily lives is beneficial for all kids—more beneficial than helping with math homework.

Of course I understand that expectations in schools and at home make homework help necessary. So if you must help with math homework, maybe you can read my book (available for purchase, and probably available at your local library). But the most important part is to talk math with your kids. That’s the mission on this blog, and the Bedtime Math app is a helpful tool for getting started.

If you’re interested in the research details on the good news part of this post, click through to the supplement. It answered many more of my questions than the published Science article did.

P.S. Those tiling turtles in the picture up above are now available in the new Talking Math with Your Kids store.

A tale of two conversations

Here are two conversations about hot chocolate.

The first one didn’t happen. The second one did. Read them both, then I’ll tell you about their meaning.

Both conversations begin on a cold November night in Minnesota. Unseasonably cold. Fourteen degrees, to be precise (–10 Celsius).

A cup of hot chocolate

Zero marshmallows for me on this cold night.

Tabitha (7 years old), Griffin (10 years old) and I get in the car to head for Tabitha’s basketball practice.

What might have been

Me: Wow! It is cold!

Tabitha (7 years old): You know what you do when it’s cold? You make hot chocolate.

Me: Ooooo! Good idea! We can do that when we get back home after practice.

T: Does it count as dessert?

Me: If you have marshmallows in it, it does.

T: I won’t have any marshmallows, then. So I can have some Jell-O.

Griffin agrees that this is the way to go, and the conversation moves on to other things.

What actually happened

Me: Wow! It is cold!

Tabitha (7 years old): You know what you do when it’s cold? You make hot chocolate.

Me: Ooooo! Good idea! We can do that when we get back home after practice.

T: Does it count as dessert?

Me: If you have two marshmallows in it, it does.

T: I’ll have zero marshmallows in mine, then, so I can have some Jell-O.

Griffin (10 years old): I’ll have one marshmallow, and a small serving of Jell-O. Wait, no! I know! I’ll cut a marshmallow in half!

I presume that this is in order to maximize his allowable Jell-O serving, while still retaining some marshmallow in his hot chocolate. It’s a scheme nearly as complicated as credit default swaps.

So what do we learn?

One small difference changed the course of the conversation—my use of a number word. I could have said, “It counts as dessert if you have marshmallows in it.” But I did say, “It counts as dessert if you have two marshmallows in it.”

Using numbers—two marshmallows instead of just marshmallows—invited the children to talk about numbers. It invited them to use numbers to maximize their benefit. It invited them to think about numbers.

This invitation is important.

A few years back, researchers paid careful attention to the ways preschool teachers talked with their students. Those teachers who used more number words and concepts as they talked with children stimulated greater growth in math than those who used less math talk.

This was not a study about math instruction; it was a study about the math language that these teachers used when they weren’t teaching math. “Yes, you three may help me.” versus “Yes, you may help me.” is the sort of difference that matters.

Using number words and math concepts in everyday speech invites children to notice and to think about number. That’s what Talking Math with Your Kids is all about.

Link to full study ($)

How young children learn about numbers

“As in other areas of language development, it appears children infer the meanings of [multi-digit] numbers using whatever experiences they can access.”

This is one of several conclusions a group of researchers at Michigan State University and Indiana University drew from their study of 3 \frac{1}{2} through 7 year olds (pdf). (Read the Washington Post’s report on the research here.) In particular, these researchers were studying the place value knowledge of young children, trying to understand whether they learn multi-digit numbers logically through direct study or culturally through everyday experience.

Examples of Tabitha’s recent experiences with multi-digit numbers.

Their study made clear that children absorb a lot of information about multi-digit numbers through their everyday experiences.

These researchers provide compelling evidence that young children (as young as 3 \frac{1}{2} years old) connect number words (fifty-seven) to numerals (57). Children can use their ideas about these numbers to identify and to compare numbers.

Talking Math with Your Kids is a project based on this premise. Children don’t need iPad apps to teach about numbers, they need conversations about the numbers in their worlds.

If we are aware of the importance of these experiences, parents can provide more opportunities for children to think about these numbers. Some examples from this blog include Days to Christmas, The Biggest Number, Uncle Wiggily, and Counting by Fives.

Talking math with your daughters

The conversations we have with our children affect their thinking. Of course they have their own interests, but the conversations we initiate have an impact.

The New York Times’ Motherlode blog (subtitle, Adventures in Parenting—we’ll talk about the equating of parenting with mothers another time!) quoted a University of Delaware study a while back:

Even [when their children are] as young as 22 months, American parents draw boys’ attention to numerical concepts far more often than girls’. Indeed, parents speak to boys about number concepts twice as often as they do girls. For cardinal-numbers speech, in which a number is attached to an obvious noun reference — “Here are five raisins” or “Look at those two beds” — the difference was even larger. Mothers were three times more likely to use such formulations while talking to boys.

The researchers note that these differences are not intentional. They were observed in the course of free interactive play between mothers and their children.

The potential consequences are important. The researchers speculate in the abstract to their published research article:

Greater amounts of early number-related talk may promote familiarity and liking for mathematical concepts, which may influence later preferences and career choices. Additionally, the stereotype of male dominance in math may be so pervasive that culturally prescribed gender roles may be unintentionally reinforced to very young children.

So do Tabitha proud, OK? Go ahead and use the two of us as a model for talking math with your daughters.


And with your sons.

If it’s true for other language…

…it’s probably true for number language too.

University of Pennsylvania researchers have studied the quality of parents’ speech to their toddlers, and its relationship to the children’s vocabulary later on. “Quality” of speech was measured by how well an adult observer could guess a common word uttered by the parent, when the observer could see the parent and child, but with sound muted.

In the researchers’ words:

Strikingly, this parent-input quality difference at child age 14–18 months [about 1.5 years] significantly correlated with the children’s vocabularies at 54 mo [about 4.5 years].

The ways in which parents were talking to their children at age 1 had an effect on the number of words the children knew at age 4.

The way you talk to children like this…

Tabitha at 21 months (a bit OLDER than the subjects in the beginning of the study)

Tabitha at 21 months (a bit OLDER than the subjects in the beginning of the study)

…has a profound impact on what they know when they are like this…

Tabitha at 54 months, the age of the subjects at the end of the study.

Tabitha at 54 months, the age of the subjects at the end of the study. She is on her way to her first day of Pre-K.

It probably goes for number words and shapes, too.

So let’s get out there and talk math with those little ones!

Count stuff, use number words at every opportunity, point out and talk about shapes. Start them young. And if you haven’t started them young, start now.

It’ll be fun, I promise.

I will help you.

Click here for a newspaper summary.

Click here for a pre-publication version of the paper (PDF, link checked and valid, August 2013).

A research basis for talking math

A University of Chicago study is summarized this way:

The amount of time parents spend talking about numbers has a much bigger impact on how young children learn mathematics than was previously known, researchers at the University of Chicago have found.

For example, children whose parents talked more about numbers were much more likely to understand the cardinal number principle — which states that the size of a set of objects is determined by the last number reached when counting the set.

Further down,

“These findings suggest that encouraging parents to talk about numbers with their children, and providing them with effective ways to do so, may positively impact children’s school achievement,” said [Susan] Levine, the Stella M. Rowley Professor in Psychology [and director of the study].

That’s what we are all about here at Talking Math with Your Kids:

  1. Encouragement, and
  2. Providing effective strategies.

You can get started with these posts about number.

The importance of talking math with your kids

From a recent Education Week article:

Greg Duncan and his colleagues found that in a comparison of math, literacy, and social-emotional skills at kindergarten entry, “early math concepts, such as knowledge of numbers and ordinality, were the most powerful predictors of later learning.” A large-scale Canadian study from 2010 echoes those findings: Math skills at school entry predicted math skills and even reading skills in 3rd and 2nd grade, respectively, better than reading skills at school entry.

Early math concepts can be developed through conversation. In the coming weeks and months, you’ll see these develop in my children. You’ll see that the conversations we have are easy to have with your own children.

And hopefully, you’ll send reports of your conversations with your own children. We’ll document them all here.