From an early age, children try to make sense of their world by applying context and meaning to certain ideas. But many children also form misconceptions about number concepts and operations that can hinder their learning of early math skills.

In a recent webinar called “Early Number Concepts: Turning Misconceptions into Meaning,” Jessica Bobo, elementary math consultant for ORIGO Education, explored some common misconceptions that can cloud a child’s early math judgment. She also revealed how preschool and elementary educators can avoid or correct these misconceptions in their teaching of early math skills.

What causes these misconceptions? Here are four common causes:

1. Multiple Meanings

Often it’s because there are many words (and symbols) with multiple meanings, and children have confused one word or symbol for another with a different meaning. “We need to be sure we’re clear about what those words are—and what meaning we’re using when we say them,” Bobo said.

For instance, the number words “one,” “two,” “four,” and “eight” all have common homonyms: won, to, too, for, and ate.

Bobo said she likes to ask young children: “Who’s heard of the word ‘one,’ and what does it mean?” Some children will talk about how their little brother or sister is one year old, she noted; others will talk about how they won their soccer game last weekend. She uses this as an opportunity to introduce children to the idea that some words can have multiple meanings.

“Can you imagine the beautiful discourse that happens between four-year-olds when you talk about multiple meaning words?” Bobo said. “It gives them an opportunity to really think about the language they hear and say. This is part of the groundwork we need to lay for them to understand the language in the mathematics classroom.”

2. A Disconnect between Verbal and Visual

Bobo said it’s important for educators to make strong connections between verbal language and visual math models (both concrete and pictoral representations of numeric quantities).

An example of connecting visual models to verbal language might be having children roll a number cube and say the number depicted: If there are four fish pictured, the child would say “four fish.” An example of connecting verbal language to visual math models would be presenting children with several plastic insects and saying: “Can you place five insects in a group?”

“We need to go back and forth between these (methods of representation), so children can see the connections between them,” she said. “What does having these counters in my hand mean? What does having these pictures tell me? And then link that to their understanding of the language they hear, so that when you say, ‘Can you show me one animal,’ they’re not thinking about ‘won’ as in a soccer game. They’re thinking about one as a quantity.”

(Next page: Early math misconceptions 3-4; teaching by math language stages)

About the Author:

Dennis Pierce is a freelance writer with 20 years of experience covering education and technology. Follow him on Twitter: @denniswpierce.

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