CHILDREN as young as three are able to comprehend basic numbers, and many of them later begin school with a far greater understanding of maths than has previously been recognised, writes Tom Innes in Chicago.
New research from the University of Chicago has identified the period between a child's third and fourth birthday as the key stage for development of children's grasp of maths.
Children from disadvantaged social backgrounds, though less skilled in verbal communication by the time they start school, are shown to be as adept as other children when it comes to numbers and figures.
In the paper issued by the university's Early Childhood Initiative, Professor Susan Levine said young pupils were likely to learn maths better if teaching was less verbally orientated.
"Often when children cannot respond correctly to the verbal mathematics problems presented in classrooms, it is assumed they lack an understanding of mathematical concepts," she said.
"Our findings show that children with specific language impairments have well-developed mathematical concepts, but may not know the conventional verbal symbols of arithmetic nor the verbal skills needed to solve mathematical problems."
Ms Levine said that some children with limited maths vocabularies would count on their fingers when solving problems. She said that this should not be discouraged, saying that it could even be argued that those who performed poorly and did not use their fingers should be encouraged to do so.
The researchers established that, as children approached the age of three, they began to develop non-verbal calculation. Over the following year the children quickly expanded their ability to understand the abstract relationship between numbers and sets of objects and events. By the age of four, after hearing a number of drum beats, most children could pick out a card with the same number of objects on it.