There are two reports out recently that investigate infant ability at math and language. First, a study of babies age 6 months shows that they can distinguish between 10 dots and 20 dots. The study relies on baby gaze as babies tend to direct their attention to new things. The set of babies that perform better at distinguishing between the two sets of dots score higher on mathematical tests given to them at age 3.
Children who performed in the top 50% of the math achievement test had a significantly higher intuitive number sense in infancy than those who performed in the bottom 50%, the authors found. This relationship held true even when the researchers controlled for general intelligence. However, although differences between the children’s scores were large and the relationship between intuitive ability and math ability was significant, it did not explain all of the statistical model’s variation. “It’s not like 90% of children’s scores were explained by infant scores,” says Elizabeth Brannon, a cognitive scientist at Duke University and senior author of the paper. This is not surprising, she says, because prior research indicates that “there are tons and tons of things that influence how well someone does at math later on.”
The second study found that differences in language ability are present at 18 months. Babies of wealthier families were able to identify pictures of a dog or ball much faster than those of low income families. Researchers believe that one difference between the two types of families is that wealthier families speak more to the child and so the child learns more words faster and that gives the rich kids an advantage in academics before their first real classes start in school.
The new findings, although based on a small sample, reinforced the earlier research showing that because professional parents speak so much more to their children, the children hear 30 million more words by age 3 than children from low-income households, early literacy experts, preschool directors and pediatricians said. In the new study, the children of affluent households came from communities where the median income per capita was $69,000; the low-income children came from communities with a median income per capita of $23,900.
Since oral language and vocabulary are so connected to reading comprehension, the most disadvantaged children face increased challenges once they enter school and start learning to read.
“That gap just gets bigger and bigger,” said Kris Perry, executive director of the First Five Years Fund, an advocate of early education for low-income children. “That gap is very real and very hard to undo.”
I don’t know how much stock I put in either of these studies, but the findings are plausible at least. I’ve been somewhat skeptical how much we should pay attention to baby gaze studies because I think it’s really difficult to say exactly what they’re paying attention to. Perhaps the babies aren’t paying attention to the particular aspect of what’s shown to them that you think they are. But the technique is used for all sorts of baby studies, so there are probably reasons to trust them that I’m not aware of.
The problem I have with the conclusions of the language study are that I think many Asian-American kids and any other children living in households whose primary language isn’t english completely bust the premise. I didn’t speak or understand a lick of english until after entering pre-school and continued to speak Chinese at home, and I suspect that the kids of many Asian parents had the same experience. Even if spoken Chinese somehow magically improved the osmosis of english, I’m pretty sure my father didn’t speak much to me at all as an infant, and my mom never completed a college degree. Yet my PSAT verbal was good enough to put me in the top .5% of Alabama PSAT test takers. So again, while the premise is interesting, I just find it hard to believe it has as much consequence as the researchers are attaching to it.