Help your child improve their maths skills

By Monica McDonnell
On February 21, 2018

Help your child improve their maths skills

We all want to help our children achieve to the best of their abilities.  Maths is not – or should not be – an exception.  Traditionally maths has had a bit of a bad reputation.  In the UK studies in 2008 and 2010 showed that it is socially acceptable to say negative things about maths. There is a tendency to classify maths as “something other people can do”.  Mostly these other people have negative descriptors associated with them.  This combined attitude, which sadly is not limited to the UK, gives people the impression that you can either do maths, or you can’t.

This can’t be true.  Like every other life skill, practice will improve your maths skills.  We can all help our children to improve their maths skills.  In order to this we must understand there are some key knowledge which will help them learn.  As it turns out, understanding the Arabic numeral system when you are 6 years old is key to improving maths skills.  This was a key finding of a team of researchers when looking for influencers of arithmetic skills.  

(Arabic numerals are simply the ten symbols that make up the number system we use today:  0, 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9.  They replaced Roman numerals, for which I am extremely grateful!)

Although I found the paper very interesting, it was a challenging read.  So I thought I’d summarise the findings here in my own words.

There were two key findings in the paper, one regarding approximate number sense, and the other around number recognition.  Your approximate number sense is the ability to estimate the number of items presented to you without relying on counting, language or symbols.  It turns out most children can enumerate between 3 and 4 objects without counting[i].  Adults can do this with up to 5 objects.  After that, we are all guessing – or estimating to be more fair.  You can try that now using the groups of items in the boxes below.


So when more than five items are grouped together, we all estimate.  The research showed that at age 6, children whose estimates of numbers of items were better, tended to be better at maths skills 11 months later.  In short the better the ‘feeling’ a six year old has for the number of items, the better their ‘feeling’ for arithmetic.  You can try estimating using the images below.


So far, the researchers appear to have found a way to identify children who have a flair for maths.  However, the research got more interesting after that.  Some children who did not score highly on the estimation test, still showed strong improvement in their maths skills 11 months on.  This is great news for all of us – because it shows that even if we don’t have a natural flair for maths, we can still improve. In short, the researchers have shown that the negative concept of ‘I can’t do maths’ is a mind set rather than a true statement of potential.

Even more interestingly, the research showed that the kids who improved most over the period of the study scored highly on Arabic number recognition.  My interpretation is as follows:

6 year olds who understand the Arabic number system, are ready to start learning and understanding maths.

So how can we help our child improve their maths skills?  A positive attitude will go a long way – maths can be taught, and everyone can learn it (not just geeky people with no social skills).  If your child is in, or about to start, primary school (kindergarden), we appear to have an extra trick up our sleeves – make sure they know their numbers.  This implies not just the simple digits of 0 through 9, but the more complex ones using tens, hundreds – and even thousands.

If you would like to see how well prepared your child is for learning maths – have them try out the Which is the Number mini game in Duck on the Run.  This game is a digital replica of the original number recognition test behind the research.

[i] This is called subitizing.  One example of this study is Starkey & Cooper, 1995

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