Improving children’s language and maths skills

New research is helping children improve their mathematical and language skills. The techniques could have implications for adults undergoing therapy.

Children are better at remembering new words and phrases after a quick nap.

Researchers from the University of Arizona’s Department of Psychology, led by Michelle Sandoval, studied language skills in three-year-olds, and found that those who napped after learning new verbs had a better understanding of the words when they were tested 24 hours later.

Pre-school children were chosen for the experiment because that is the age when they start napping less, and verbs were chosen because they are typically more difficult to learn and remember than simple nouns such as Mummy, bottle, and dog. Very young children already understand a lot about individual objects because they have clear boundaries. Verbs on the other hand, are not as easy to comprehend because they relate to all sorts of other information such as when and how.

The children were divided into two groups – habitual nappers, who already nap four or more days a week, and non-habitual nappers, who did not.

Within each group, they were randomly assigned either a napping condition, in which they would nap for at least 30 minutes after learning a new verb, or a wakefulness condition, where they would not nap after learning.

They were then taught two made-up verbs – blicking’ and ‘rooping’ – and shown a short film of two different actors performing separate whole-body actions which corresponded to each verb. 24 hours later, they were shown videos of two new actors performing the same actions they had learned the previous day and were asked to point at which person was ‘blicking’ and which was ‘rooping.’

The tests revealed that children who napped within an hour of learning the verbs performed better than those who stayed awake for at least five hours – regardless of whether or not they were habitual nappers.

The purpose of sleep is to give the brain a chance to collate new information and discard irrelevant information, which is why the very young, still engaged in rapid learning processes, should be allowed to sleep whenever they wish.

As with adults, some children need more sleep than others. Most important is the total amount of sleep rather than the frequency of sleep. Preschool-age children should be getting 10 to 12 hours of sleep in a 24-hour period, regardless of whether it’s all at night or a combination of night sleep and napping.

We know there can be negative long-term consequences if children don’t get enough sleep, so it’s important to create opportunities for them to do so.

So much for language, what about maths?

Researchers at the University of Copenhagen’s Department of Nutrition, Exercise and Sports, led by associate professor Professor Jacob Wienecke, have found that children become better at maths if their whole bodies are engaged in the learning process.

This makes a lot of sense because more areas of the brain are involved and so more neuronal connections are created which help to form more permanent memories.

The study took six weeks and involved 165 seven-year-old children from three schools in Copenhagen, divided into three groups. The researchers were interested in finding out if different learning strategies improved the way children solved maths problems.

The first group were taught on the classroom floor, without tables and chairs. These students took part in problem solving activities that included using their bodies to make shapes such as triangles and numbers and using each other to solve addition or subtraction problems.

The second group of students employed fine motor skills, working independently or in small groups and using LEGO bricks to solve arithmetical problems and building models to solve geometric problems.

The third group – the control group – continued their usual maths classes using pencils, paper, rulers and the usual mathematical instruments.

After six weeks, all the children took a standardised fifty question national test. Those whose teaching engaged their whole bodies performed the best with a 7.6% improvement. This was twice the improvement as the second, fine motor skills group.

The study also found that children who already possessed above average maths skills benefited the most from using their bodies, but children whose maths skills had never been very good didn’t gain very much additional benefit. Obviously, individual understanding must still be taken into consideration so that all children, regardless of their ability, can keep up.

But the team also discovered that children’s maths skills improve if the way it’s taught is tailored to each child’s interests – and that could be their interest in aeroplanes or football or even a game of cops and robbers.

It is possible of course that this method is just making learning more interesting. I can already see how it could be applied in science and chemistry and also in history.

The researchers are now investigating which areas of the brain are involved in these various learning strategies by recording brain activity. They will also be testing the method on other academic skills such as reading. The Danish research was published in the journal Frontiers in Human Neuroscience.

What about combining the two methods?

How would it work out if children used body movement to help them learn verbs? What about letting children have a nap once they had learned a new mathematical rule? Better still, what about using both methods in both subjects? How effectively would these methods translate to other subjects?

When I treat clients for fears and phobias, or confidence (or lack thereof) I often get them to stand up and ‘play-act’ how they would like to see themselves in the future. Then I use the relaxation techniques of hypnosis to let them absorb all the things we’ve talked about in the session – and have a little rest.

It seems to work very well.

 

Copyright Andrew Newton 2017. All rights reserved.