Narration and Math Thought—A Link?
By Suzanne Offensend, Teacher
As part of staff-development day in February, Daniela O’Neill, Ph.D., a former student of John Flavell, spoke about the importance of narrative in children’s development. O’Neill is visiting Stanford on a sabbatical from the University of Waterloo in Ontario, Canada. She specializes in the theory of mind and how it plays a role in peer conversations among 3- and 4-year-olds.
O’Neill began her research by focusing on narrative, or storytelling, because of claims that narrative ability is the most important language skill leading to success in school and thus an excellent predictor of later academic performance. Because narrative is linked to reading ability, this theory made sense, but the evidence backing it was poor.
O’Neill designed a study in which 3- and 4-year-old children were shown a book and then, were asked to retell the story to Big Bird or Ernie. The book Frog Goes to Dinner by Mercer Meyer was used because it involves a lot of people and mayhem. Among the items compared were the length of children’s utterances, the number of events they mentioned, the number of different words they used, and the number of perspective shifts (switches from one character to another).
When these children reached kindergarten and first grade they were given the Peabody Individualized Achievement Test, which measures spelling, reading, math, and general knowledge. To O’Neill’s surprise, high performance on the earlier narrative study correlated most strongly not with general knowledge, spelling, or reading, but with math.
O’Neill, a self-confessed “math-phobic,” is now studying how mathematical and linguistic thinking may be related abilities. This view is supported by mathematicians such as Keith Devlin, the author of The Math Gene, who has pointed out that math is above all pattern recognition, that it is all around us every day, and that 99 percent of math thinking is learning to ignore irrelevant information while choosing what is relevant. O’Neill wants to identify the early component skills fundamental to math thought that appear regardless of the teaching domain—not with the goal of intervention but to learn what is so powerful about narrative and how it connects to problem solving. Indeed, another type of narrative ability that may be importantly linked to problem solving is hypothetical or “what if” thinking
In other research, O’Neill is interested in how preschool children start to converse with each other. This situation is difficult for preschoolers, who must make the most of their limited knowledge of other children to find a topic of mutual interest to talk about. It is a very different task from talking to adults, but adults can help by following some easy tips tell stories, talk at meals, and ask “what if.” You don’t have to buy anything at all—just talk!