Reading and Math, Better Together

June 13, 2019

We get it: one of the best ways to help children succeed in school and in life is to read to them.  

But math? Not so much, with some parents unaware of the importance of math in the early years and teachers by and large spending twice as much time on reading than on math, according to a new paper in Policy Insights from the Behavioral and Brain Sciences.

The paper, “Mathematics and Reading Develop Together in Young Children: Practical and Policy Considerations,” cites numerous studies showing that the teaching and learning of math and reading are linked.

One study found that the more parents engage their young children in math, the better their language skills five months later. Another, based on the Building Blocks curriculum, shows that math instruction in preschool that is an interactive and verbal experience can also lead to improvements in children’s language skills. 

“They’re talking and asking questions and learning to describe their world through math,” says David J. Purpura, who co-authored the paper along with Purdue University colleagues Ellen C. Litkowski and Valerie Knopik.

Conversely, understanding language terms — such as “more”, “many” and “most” — will help children develop their math skills, Purpura explains. 

Despite the evidence, math and reading have historically been segregated not only at the practical instructional level but at the research level as well, “with specialists in math and reading publishing in separate journals and attending separate conferences,” according to the paper.

“We need to drive home the point that it’s really important to consider how we can integrate reading and math research and instruction,” Purpura says. 

The authors recommend national policies to promote the importance of both math and reading in the early years.

At the ground level, pediatricians could bolster math education in the home. 

Pediatricians already are promoting reading as a way for parents to support their children’s language development. Likewise, they could educate parents on ways to integrate math into daily interactions with their children.

In the schools, using curricula that are shown to be effective can also help with math education.  “These curricula are available and should be more widely used,” Purpura says.

Litkowski adds that while explaining to children the importance of math for career success is well and good, emphases also should be placed on the fun they can have with math to understand their world.

The authors have not received any financial support for publication or research of this article.