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5 Unexpected Ways to Improve Reading (Hint! Use Math)

5 Unexpected Ways to Improve Reading (Hint! Use Math)What hinders language acquisition? We want to believe that children really do have unlimited opportunities to learn language and vocabulary. We know this is sometimes true. Families and caregivers who go the extra mile to converse, sing, and engage with their children are definitely teaching them language in interactive ways.

We also know that children who grow up in homes where language is sparse—where spoken words are less available—experience big blockers for language acquisition. Children need access to conversation and word variety if they are to learn how language works. Research continues to measure the vocabularies of “language rich” preschoolers against those who hear fewer words at home, and the difference is clear—for some children, by about 30 million words (1, 2).

You may already know that earlier reading intervention (rather than waiting to remediate in Grades 2 and 3) is one effective trick. What you may not know is that you can also accomplish reading improvement by adding more math to your daily schedule.

Really? Math Can Help Reading Outcomes?

Early math skills do predict later math success—of course. That’s a no-brainer. But early math skills also predict later reading achievement, maybe even more than early reading skills can.

The reason why? Research suggests that math helps children with foundational oral language, which is a precursor to literacy. In addition, math fosters vocabulary, inferencing, positional and spatial thinking, and grammatical complexity (3). In other words, when you’re learning math, you’re using a tightly woven, integrated series of learning concepts. You’re practicing many other foundational concepts at the same time.

5 Ways to Teach Math Every Day

If math frequently falls off your radar or if you’re not sure how to harness your Pre-K mathematicians, you’re not alone. We at Abrams Learning Trends conducted a study at NAEYC’s 2015 Annual Conference and found a common thread: 

(click here to download the full report)
  • 96% of Pre-K teachers surveyed report that they make developmental readiness skills (i.e. social-emotional, oral language, and gross and fine motor) their top instructional priority,
  • while only 4% of Pre-K teachers surveyed report that they make academic readiness skills (i.e., emergent reading, emergent mathematics, and the content areas) their top instructional priority.

With pressure to read in Grade K, it’s no wonder why math sometimes falls to the end of the list in Pre-K.

With all that a child has to gain through math instruction, a daily dose of math is just so critical. To get started, you may want to:

1. Integrate instruction purposefully.

When teachers integrate topics, students learn more in less time. Students are usually super-engaged because the activity is rich and quick paced. In Pre-K, try integrating developmental skills with academic skills, since you likely already dedicate a chunk of time to social-emotional and motor skills learning. For example:

  • Sing songs or do fingerplays about math.
  • Use active math games to refine motor skills while practicing content concepts.
  • Group children so that you can teach sharing and collaboration while also teaching numbers and quantity.

2.Teach math through oral language, not just numbers and symbols.

When you tune into children’s language, you may notice that they use mathematics concepts all the time, and in natural ways. When kids say, “He has more crackers than I do,”  “It’s too big to fit!” or “The red block belongs in the red group,” it means that children are thinking mathematically.

3. Problem-solve and reason with children.

At the root of mathematics is problem-solving, and you can’t problem-solve without reasoning. Model problem solving in authentic ways by thinking aloud whenever possible. Problem solving is especially authentic when you’re:

  • passing out snack or serving food during lunch.
  • bringing chairs to the carpet, one for each child.
  • suggesting that children share manipulatives.
  • calling children to stand in line.
  • grouping children in different ways.

4. Encourage authentic playtime.

When children immerse themselves in play, their self-regulation and problem-solving abilities soar. During playtime, children “pursue their own purposes” (4). With that comes the chance to mull problems and solutions over in the mind—but in safe, nonthreatening ways that allow children to learn from their peers’ approaches.

Researchers know that this type of play leads to greater mathematical thinking. The key is linking mathematics to playtime:

  • “Raul, how did you and Rachita divide the blocks?”
  • “What do you think will happen if we add one more? Two more?”
  • “What did you do with the leftover block?”

5. Provide Take-Home Tools (games and manipulatives – not homework).

In the younger grades, families may not know how to link mathematics to daily life. Even if they do, materials, money, and time might be scarce. That’s why it’s so important to guide families with robust take-home options, like printable math books, online math games, and fun theme bags. When families work overtime to reinforce classroom concepts, learning becomes even more memorable.

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  • (1) Hart, B., & Risley, T.R. (1995, 2003). The Early Catastrophe: The 30 Million Word Gap by Age 3. Baltimore, MD: Brookes Publishing.
    (2) Fernald, A. (2014, August 15). Why talking to little kids matters | Anne Fernald | TEDxMonterey [Video file]. Retrieved from
    (3) Clements, D.H., Baroody, A. J., Sarama, J. Background Research on Early Mathematics. National Governor’s Association (NGA) Center Project on Early Mathematics. pp. 1–3
    (4) National Association for the Education of Young Children. 2002, 2010. Early Childhood Mathematics: Promoting Good Beginnings. Washington, D.C.: Position Statement