Teaching Basic Arithmetic and Geometry to Preschoolers Improves Test Scores

Reviewed by Mary McLaughlin, M.S. SpEd

Recent revisions in Seattle’s preschool system have shown that preschool students are not only capable of learning and retaining basic arithmetic; they are also able to understand more complex geometric concepts.

At South Shore, a PreK-8 school in Seattle, preschool teachers are taking the initiative to teach basic math to students before they enter kindergarten, resulting in 95% of students having the skills required to succeed in elementary school, far above the Washington State average of 53%.

The methods used are simple: teach math using objects rather than just teaching basic shapes and counting. Kristin Alfonzo, a teacher at South Shore, uses an exercise where she asks students to split 7 beads across two pipe cleaners to demonstrate how many ways one can add up to 7.

These methods are being sought after in other public school districts. Boston school districts have found that after changing how they teach math to four year olds, math scores are greatly improved by the time students reach third grade. Of Boston students that attended preschool in the public school system, 54% tested at advanced or proficient in third grade, while 43% of students that did not attend a public preschool tested at advanced or proficient.

The reason this seems like a new idea is that many preschool educators were swayed by the research of psychologist Jean Piaget, who suggested that four year olds think the quantity of a string of items grows as the spacing between them grows. However, children are easily capable of reading the quantity of a given set of items: assuming those items matter to them, like M&Ms.

Students have also demonstrated their ability to communicate geometric concepts clearly. In a geometry game, the teacher places a foam shape into a closed box that has two holes on either side of it. The student places their hands in the box and describes the features of the shape to other students, who then guess what the shape is. Sara Gardner plays this game with her students, and she encourages students to answer with specific terms, making sure to identify a square as both a square and a rhombus.

Such advanced concepts can be successfully taught to preschoolers, but not every student will respond to these new methods. A student in Kristen Alfonzo’s class did not reach understanding of numbers beyond four, despite the planning of the school. Nevertheless, the success of the program is great, and is currently being adopted by schools through Washington State.