Narrative skills linked to math problems


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Can storytelling skills help kids with the math challenge? Kibworth Library Leicestershire County Council.

Kids who ranked highly on certain language skills at age 3 or 4 did better on a math test two years later.

frog stretches up

Language. Math. To many of us, these fields of thought are as different as, well, letters and numbers. Some people are good at one, some at the other, a lucky few at both. But scientists have found little evidence that kids with excellent language ability are also masters of math. Despite speculation that the skills might be linked, only one study had seen the link, says Daniela O'Neill, professor of psychology at the University of Waterloo in Ontario.

Three young girls reading surrounded by books on shelves. Language skills, in other words, don't "predict" math skills.

Now comes a study by O'Neill and two colleagues that finds a relationship between math and specific storytelling skills. Kids who ranked highly on certain language skills at age 3 or 4 did better on a math test two years later.

We'll explain which storytelling skills after we deal with the "who-done-what" business.

O'Neill, a developmental psychologist, says she'd long been interested in a child's "ability to take the perspective of other people in storytelling," which indicates that they "understand their own minds, and the minds of others."

If previous studies found no link between storytelling -- narrative -- and math, maybe the measurements were too broad. "There are many things you can study about narrative," she says. "It's a very complex task."

Previous researchers had not studied the ability to adopt a character's perspective. Could that matter?

Testing time
O'Neill and Co. rounded up 48 Canadian kids who did not have learning disabilities and showed them "Frog Goes to Dinner," a 12-page picture-only book that shows a boy visiting a restaurant -- with his pet frog.

The amphib gets into a bucket of trouble. No duh! The tester gave each kid a puppet and asked him or her to describe the book's action to the puppet.

frog in salad screams Eeeekk!!Two years later, the researchers tracked down 41 of their guinea pigs and tested their academic achievement. The math section included a number of simple problems related to counting, identifying shapes and interpreting graphs.

The researchers then trysted with their computers and asked a statistical question: Was there any relationship between general language ability and math skills? No. And math skills were not related to some specific measures of storytelling ability, like the size of vocabulary or the length of sentences.

But three specific language skills did leap out of the computers.

Taking a character's perspective. At one point, the frog jumps into a lady's salad. As he pokes his amphibian snout from the escarole, the diner silently screams. A child who could take the character's point of view might say, "Eek, there's a frog in my salad!" O'Neill observes. "They are going into her shoes, speaking for her. ... We looked to see how well the children captured the movement of events from character to character. Some children would tell only about the frog's action, and you would hardly know there are other people in the story."

Number of events the kids noticed. A more detailed picture of events in the story predicted better math skills two years later.

Using mental-state terms. Some kids could express what the characters were feeling. For example, when the frog appeared in the salad, O'Neill says, these kids might observe that the unlucky diner was "surprised."

frog in front of sign that says: A kid who can take a character's perspective while telling a story is likely to do better in math.

How come?
The study suggested that certain narrative skills could predict math skills on a later test, but it did not explain the relationship.

Should that prevent us from speculating? No. So let's get to the fun part.

O'Neill says pioneering developmental psychologist Jerome Bruner argued "that stories are the way we understand the world around us, so it's possible that storytelling is a very fundamental form of human thinking, and being strong in some aspects may be beneficial when you are tackling other problems."

In other words, the brain circuits that help us move through the various parts of a story also help us look at the world from a logical, numerical, mathematical viewpoint. Having seized the end of that intellectual rope, O'Neill says she's now tugging on it to get a more detailed picture of which language skills are linked to math. The math prodigies at The Why Files are counting on her.

frog asks: Tell me a story?

So what?
The relationship may be interesting, but does it matter? Perhaps, says O'Neill (although she sounds as if she would also be doing the research from pure curiosity). "Math is an area that a lot of children have difficulty with, so anything we can find out about what kind of abilities would provide a strong foundation for children ... may be important." Storytelling, she suggests, "May be another avenue by which to strengthen some abilities that may be beneficial later."
-- David ("Math-impaired") Tenenbaumfrog says Ribbitt.

All frog photos this page ©S.V. Medaris

Preschool Children's Narratives and Performance on the Peabody Individualized Achievement Test - Revised: Evidence of a Relation Between Early Narrative and Later Mathematical Ability, O'Neill, Daniela K., Pearce, Michelle J. and Pick, Jennifer L., First Language. Vol. 24. Issue 02. June 2004.

The Math Gene, Keith Devlin.


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