Researchers identified key variables for success in elementary math and beyond.

Numbers, counting, and low-level arithmetic are three basic competencies that are vital to later success in math, and students should have these key math skills in first grade in order to be successful in math in fifth grade, according to a long-term study released by psychologists at the University of Missouri (UM).

“Math is critical for success in many fields, and the United States is not doing a great job of teaching math,” David Geary, UM’s Curator’s Professor of Psychological Sciences, who led the research team, said in a statement. “In order to improve basic instruction, we have to know what to instruct.”

Researchers monitored 177 elementary students from 12 different elementary schools from kindergarten to fifth grade, and intend to continue monitoring them through high school. Students who understood the number line and some basic math facts in the beginning of first grade showed faster growth in math skills over the next five years.

“It is important that children understand the meaning of Arabic numerals, that is, the quantities they represent and be able to quickly translate quantities into numerals and numerals into quantities. [The study] also highlights the importance of knowing basic facts and the number line,” Geary said.

Teachers and parents can incorporate the results of this study into their math instruction to build long-term math skills and success in math.