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Building Blocks Math From Pre-K to Grade 2

(James M. Thresher - For The Washington Post)

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Monday, September 8, 2008

Last week, The Washington Post explored key issues in math education.

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This week, staff writer Michael Alison Chandler reports on the

development of math sense and skills among the youngest learners.

Outside a kindergarten classroom at Lakewood Elementary School in Rockville, students used a bar graph to show how they felt about returning to school. Students placed green stickers on the graph to indicate whether they felt scared, nervous, okay, happy or thrilled. Across the hall, first-graders traced numerals and updated a tally chart of "The Number of Students Absent."

These students will be steeped in numbers and shapes for the next nine months, as teachers set out to instill in them basic principles of mathematics.

With math skills at a premium in a technology-driven economy, children are expected to learn more math, and sooner. Algebra is taught in middle school to help prepare students for advanced math in high school. High-stakes standardized tests add to the pressure. The first years are considered crucial for laying a solid math foundation.

Kindergarten: A Readiness Gap

In the first week of school at Cool Spring Elementary in Prince George's County, kindergartners counted little rubber trains or cars at their desks as the teacher called out different numbers. Some students tallied the right number of objects each time, said teacher Laurie Walker. Others understood the exercise in Spanish but not in English. Still others were unsure of how the word "eight" translated into the colorful toys at their fingertips.

Kindergarten traditionally has been the starting place for formal math education. Earlier lessons in math concepts are often informal or sporadic. As a result, students arrive in kindergarten with significant variations in what they can understand and do.

To raise the level of math readiness for all students, there is a growing push among policymakers and educators to start teaching math to younger children through universal pre-kindergarten programs or other preschool instruction.

The National Council of Teachers of Mathematics introduced standards for pre-K math in 2000. The standards emphasized these concepts as important for children to begin to understand: numbers; shapes and sizes; and measurement. Many states are drafting similar standards to focus math education in pre-K programs. There are also efforts to train child-care providers and parents to be more effective math teachers.

A First-Grade Math Snapshot

The first-graders at Lakewood Elementary School sat cross-legged on the floor on the first week of school. Each was equipped with a lap-size dry erase board, a marker and a white sock for erasing.

In response to the first question -- "How old are you?" -- students put a wobbly 5, 6, or 7 on their white boards and then displayed them proudly. One boy wrote "6 +."

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