Teachers’ Abstract Language Can Affect Childrens Math Learning

Do the labels educators use to verbally describe patterns affects preschoolers’ understanding of patterns? This was the question a new paper set out to examine.

Understanding the inability of many children to understand mathematics, and developing strategies to overcome it is the research specialty of University of Notre Dame psychology professor Nicole McNeil, and the researchers in her lab.

“Patterns are things, such as words or numbers that repeat in a logical way,” McNeil said. “For example, the stripes on an American flag are laid out in a repeating pattern of red, white, red, white, etc. Children’s ability to identify and create patterns is an important early math skill that supports their social and cognitive development. In fact, research has shown that teaching children about patterns improves their achievement in reading and mathematics.”

McNeil collaborated with doctoral student Emily Fyfe, and other colleagues at Vanderbilt University, to investigate whether the labels educators use to identify patterns affects preschoolers’ understanding of patterns.

Concrete vs. Abstract Labeling

The team compared concrete labels, which refer to the changing physical features of the pattern (e.g., “red, white, red, white”), to abstract labels, which describe the pattern using an arbitrary system that mimics the pattern (e.g., “A, B, A, B”).

Children in the study solved a set of patterning problems in which they watched an experimenter explain a model pattern using either concrete labels or abstract labels and then tried to recreate the same pattern using a different set of materials.

“Children who were randomly assigned to the abstract labels condition solved more problems correctly than those assigned to the concrete labels condition,” McNeil said. “Thus, even though concrete labels seem better because they are more familiar and accessible to children, abstract labels may help focus attention on the deeper structure of patterns. These findings suggest that something as minor as the types of labels used during instruction can affect children’s understanding of fundamental early math concepts.”

Input Structure Influence

This research result matches with several other findings from McNeil’s lab in recent years that have shown that relatively minor differences in the structure of children’s input can play a role in shaping and constraining children’s understanding of fundamental math concepts.

“Researchers and educators often focus on the macro-level environmental differences (like quality of early child care setting) and how they affect cognitive development,” she said. “However, a growing body of research suggests that even differences in relatively specific, microlevel factors can affect how children understand certain concepts. I think this means that we need to be very purposeful about structuring lessons and our instructional input to ensure that we are setting children up to construct an understanding of the most important concepts.”

Although the McNeil lab’s research is primarily focused on mathematics, the results may possibly be applicable to other areas of learning such as reading and spelling.


Emily R. Fyfe, Nicole M. McNeil, Bethany Rittle-Johnson.
Easy as ABCABC: Abstract Language Facilitates Performance on a Concrete Patterning Task.
Child Development, 2015; 86 (3): 927 DOI: 10.1111/cdev.12331

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