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4th December 2015 - Is there an optimum age group for particular maths skills to be learnt?

Catch Up Numeracy intervention session

This really interesting question came into the Catch Up® office and set us all thinking. We quickly realised we didn’t have enough information to provide an answer so we turned to our maths guru, Dr Ann Dowker, (whose research Catch Up® Numeracy is based on) and she told us:

  • Some abilities do have a sensitive period when learning must take place. We’ve all read about ‘feral’ children who experienced exceptional early deprivation and, once released, go on to have problems with language/grammar for the rest of their lives.

  • A less extreme example is the difficulty Japanese have in distinguishing between the /r/ and /l/ sounds in English. The Japanese do not have quite those same sounds in their language so, when they are learning English, it’s really difficult for them to distinguish between the pronunciation of ‘right’ and ‘light’. But the interesting thing is, 4-month-old Japanese infants can make the discrimination between /r/ and /l/ as reliably as 4-month-olds raised in English-speaking households! Ah … but you are wondering how they tested the language skills of 4-month olds? Well, they monitored increased suckling frequency or head turning when exposed to a new sound. But by 6 months of age, Japanese infants could no longer distinguish between /r/ and /l/ (presumably because they had been surrounded by language which did not make that distinction).

  • Think also how quickly some children in our schools acquire spoken English even if it is their 3rd or even 4th language. Many adults paying for evening classes in a foreign language would love to have the facility for spoken language acquisition that these children display.

  • So, the point is, some skills do seem to have a critical learning window. But the idea of an optimum age for learning something doesn't generally apply to those skills that depend on teaching. People can learn to read, do formal maths, etc. at any age.

  • Interestingly, international comparisons show that, while there are lots of differences in maths performance between different countries, one thing that doesn't make a difference is age of starting school: children who start school at 7 do just as well as those who start at 4. Finland, for example, is one of the highest achieving countries but doesn't start formal instruction until 7.

  • What’s the relevance of all of this to Catch Up? Well, when we did the research which underpins Catch Up Numeracy, we did look at whether children who started the intervention at a younger age improved more than those who started at an older age. We found that they did not. However, we are all aware of the other factors that come into play when a child experiences an extended period of lack of success in a curriculum area – low self-esteem; lack of confidence; reluctance to persevere. Also, children who have difficulties with number may struggle in subjects like science, where a knowledge of number can be important.

So, in summary, it is probably best for intervention to start early to prevent children from falling behind and to reduce the chances of their developing maths anxiety; but there do not appear to be any 'windows of learning'.

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