Research Profile: Joanne Lee

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Language is easily and naturally learned by young children through everyday interactions, but the same can’t be said about mathematics and numeracy.

Joanne Lee, an associate psychology professor at Wilfrid Laurier University, is addressing this issue through her research and community programs.

Lee specializes in developmental psychology of young children, focusing on the early childhood education (ECE) years of ages zero to four. She believes that just as language is instilled at this young age, “math talk” should be instilled as well.

Lee points to research that has found that going into kindergarten or first grade with a solid mathematical foundation lays down a trajectory path and predicts mathematical success in later schooling.

“The child that comes in with little counting knowledge will be at a disadvantage,” explained Lee. “The neurons [brain cells] are pruning and trimming. If you don’t lay the foundation, it’ll be more difficult. That’s why we have to start early.”

Lee has conducted experiments in the Child Language and Math Lab at Laurier with 30- minute play-session interactions between parents and their children were videotaped at their home. A variety of playing materials ranging from toys to books were supplied to be freely played with.

Lee discovered that math talk was rarely used between the parents and their children during this time – accounting for only seven to eight per cent of interactions. Math talk was coded by counting the number of times the five previously-set counting principles were used.

“Parents often times, with young children, tend to label objects. ‘Oh, look there’s a bird. Look there’s this.’ Often times their focus is vocabulary building,” said Lee. “And from that research, we saw there’s a need to help parents with strategies and pointers to instil math talk.”

And from that, the ECE program by the name of the LittleCounters was created in collaboration with Donna Kotsopoulos of the faculty of education at WLU. LittleCounters runs in local libraries and is made for children 12 to 39 months old. The five session program goes through each of the five counting principles in each session with the parents and children.

“We explain to the parents what the research has found and how to actually use it,” said Lee. But Lee stresses that formal teaching is not the intention of the program. “We’re not asking parents to drag their child to sit down and teach one plus one equals two. But we try to teach parents how to use stories, toys, snack times, and meals times to inject the talk about numeracy.”

Lee stated that the program has been successful with positive feedback and results to show for it.

“ It’s something fun, but yet the child is unknowingly learning math.”

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