Study: Early Math Knowledge Related to Later Achievement


A recent longitudinal study conducted in Tennessee found that under-resourced children’s math knowledge in preschool was related to their later achievement—but that not all types of math skills are equally important. The study adds to the growing research and interest in children’s math learning in the earliest years and suggests educators might want to focus more on certain math skills than others.

The goal of the study was to determine whether children’s math skills at ages 4 and 5 predicted their math achievement at age 11. Researchers at Vanderbilt University studied 517 under-resourced children from ages 4 to 11, who were primarily Black and all qualified for free or reduced lunch. They tested students’ general skills and six math skills—patterning, counting objects, comparing quantities, understanding written numbers, calculating, and understanding shapes—in the last year of preschool and near the end of first grade. Near the end of fifth grade, researchers tested a range of math knowledge, including numbers, algebra, and geometry.

The results showed preschool math skills supported first-grade math skills, which then supported fifth-grade math knowledge. But not all types of math knowledge tested were equally important. In preschool, student’s scores in these three areas were stronger predictors of their fifth grade math achievement than other skills:

  • patterning,
  • comparing quantities,
  • and counting objects.

In first grade, patterning was still a strong predictor or later achievement, but understanding written numbers and calculating also emerged as important predictors.

Other recent research also links high-quality math instruction at the earliest grade levels to improved academic success through high school—and not just in math‑related subjects. Research shows effective early math instruction also leads to later success in reading skills and oral language abilities. In fact, some research even shows early math scores are a better indicator of later reading success than early reading scores.

These results are consistent with what we’ve seen with our research and curriculum here at Waterford: Math skills have a tremendous impact on future achievement. That’s why we’ve combined preschool through second grade reading instruction with early math and science for more than 10 years—and why Waterford is proven to result in positive, long-term gains for students

Here’s an example of how Waterford teaches counting—one of the studies’ stronger predictors:


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