Children who arrive at school knowing letters and numbers do better

Children who start kindergarten with a basic grasp of numbers and the written word are the most likely to shine through elementary school, regardless of whether they start out with behavioural problems, says a new international study.

It's believed to be the first major endeavour of its kind to show it's what you know, not how you act, that determines success in the early grades.

Twelve university professors from the United States, Britain and Canada pieced together data from six studies, collectively tracking 36,000 children from kindergarten to age 13.

The study found that mastering informal math concepts –such as understanding that five pieces of chocolate are more than three pieces and subtracting two teddy bears from four leaves two — matter the most in predicting later success in school.

Language and pre-reading skills, such as understanding phonetics, recognizing letters and perhaps even simple words, are also important, but not as much as grasping rudimentary math concepts. The ability to concentrate while completing a task also had an effect on later success.

"The gold winner was the pre-math skills, the silver was reading, and the bronze was attention-related skills,"said Linda Pagani, a professor at University of Montreal's school of psycho-education and one of the study's authors.

The findings are published in the November issue of Developmental Psychology, a journal of the American Psychological Association.

The researchers also discovered, to their surprise, that difficulty getting along with classmates, or being aggressive, disruptive, sad, or withdrawn, did not detract from future success.

"We often think that early math and reading skills are important for later school success, but we also talk about behaviour skills and social skills," said author Amy Claessens, a professor at Northwestern University.

"I think we were all surprised that these behaviours were not predictive of later achievement."

The study surmises that preschool learners have an advantage not only because they are better prepared, but because they may benefit from being labelled as the best students from the outset.

Pagani cautioned that parents should not rush out and by flash cards to start drilling their children. Rather, preschool learning is best achieved by informal activities, such as counting how many forks are needed at the dinner table and pointing out such things as letters and shapes at every opportunity.

Judith Bernhard, a professor of early childhood studies at Ryerson University in Toronto, said that economically advantaged children are the ones who are most likely to show up with pre-reading and math skills because they're the ones who are most likely to have the benefit of preschool or have lots of books at home.

Source: The Province, Canada