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Early Math Learning = Later School Success

By HighScope | March 4, 2019

An excerpt from HighScope’s Journal for Early Educators: The Active Learner

A Conversation with Deborah Stipek, Ph.D.

In this interview, we talk with early education expert, Deborah Stipek, Ph.D., about the importance of early math learning in young children’s long-term academic achievement. Dr. Stipek chairs the Heising-Simons Development And Research on Early Math Education Network.

Q: Early mathematics has increasingly come into the spotlight as the result of new research that connects early math learning to later academic achievement. What are some of the key findings?

A: The one that has received the most attention is the finding (in several large-scale studies) that math skills at kindergarten entry – that is, the knowledge children develop before entering elementary school – predict later reading skills and later academic achievement overall. Consistent difficulty in math during elementary school is associated with higher dropout rates and lower college entrance – more so than consistent difficulties in reading. Although we’re not yet sure about the underlying connections, these findings make clear the importance of early math learning to children’s future academic success.

Q: Is there a particular area of mathematics instruction that is most significant in predicting later learning?

A: Young children need to develop a strong sense of number, which includes being able to count using one-to-one correspondence, being able to determine which of two numbers is larger, understanding that adding to a collection results in a larger number, and so on. They should also develop spatial skills: not just being able to identify shapes, but also being able to articulate the defining characteristics of shapes, and to understand spatial concepts such as above, below, under.

Q: In what ways are the Common Core State Standards shaping expectations for preschool math instruction and learning? 

A: Many states are aligning their preschool standards to the Common Core kindergarten standards. Ideally, children have the foundational skills they need when they enter kindergarten to achieve standards. And by aligning standards and instruction, teachers help children experience a continuum of opportunities to develop their skills. Math standards are important. They give teachers guideposts and a clear sense of the goals. It’s hard for teachers to create a plan if they don’t know they want to end up.

Q: You discuss the need for “playful instruction” in relation to early math learning. Can you explain what you mean by that?

A: Teachers of young children do not have to choose between play and academic instruction. When teachers are intentional – planning activities with learning goals in mind – math adheres to the goals of standards-based academic teaching without appearing overtly as such. In one classroom I visited, the teacher had drawn a 6×10 grid on a shower curtain and spread it out on the floor. She invited children to take off their shoes and sort them into piles according to attributes that they themselves had established – for example, sneakers, shoes with Velcro, sandals – and then arrange the shoes into categories on the grid. From there, the teacher asked children what they noticed about the shoes, which led to a discussion about which categories had the most or least shoes, which kind of shoe most children wore to school that day, how many more sneakers there were than sandals, and so on. This is what I call “playful instruction.” Although the children may not have realized this was a math lesson, they were learning math.

Q: What are some other examples of how teachers can engage young children in math learning “playfully”?

A: Math instruction for young children should be intentional and have clear learning goals in mind. But it also needs to be meaningful to young children. Some math teaching can be done in the form of games (for example, playing chutes and ladders, or playing war with cards, in which children count the symbols to determine who has more). I have seen children hunt for shapes in their classroom, debating whether a window with slightly curved corners is really a rectangle; or explain to their teacher why they claim that the clock is a circle. Young children also love to count objects: the number of letters in their name, the number of cars in a toy train, the number of children present during circle time, the number of buttons on their shirt, the number of rungs on the ladder to the slide. You can teach math effectively without a single flashcard or worksheet. Math is everywhere in children’s lives. Helping them see that will make math meaningful to them.

Read more in  The Active Learner.

Deborah Stipek, Ph.D., is the former dean of Stanford University’s Graduate School of Education, where she now serves as Judy Koch Professor Of Education. She holds a PhD in developmental psychology from Yale. Dr. Stipek’s research focuses on early children’s achievement motivation, early childhood education, elementary education, and school reform. She is a member of the HighScope Board of Directors.

Originally published by: Tangorra, Joanna. “Early Math Learning = Later School Success” The Active Learner. 1.1 (2017): 22-24.

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HighScope Educational Research Foundation is an independent, nonprofit, research, development, training, and public outreach organization with headquarters in Ypsilanti, Michigan. HighScope’s mission is to lift lives through education. We are a diverse team of researchers, educators, and passionate professionals who have one thing in common — we share the conviction that all children deserve the highest quality education. We envision a world in which all educational settings use active, participatory learning so everyone has a chance to succeed in life and contribute to society. Visit our website at for more information.