Math literacy is imperative to succeed in society. Experience is key for acquiring math literacy. A preschooler’s world is full of mathematical experiences. Children are continually counting, sorting and comparing as they play. As children are engaged in these activities they are using language as a tool to express their mathematical thinking. If teachers are aware of these teachable moments and help children bridge their daily experiences to mathematical concepts, math literacy may be enhanced.
This study described the interactions between teachers and preschoolers, determining the extent to which teachers scaffold children’s everyday language into expressions of mathematical concepts. Of primary concern were the teachers’ responsive interactions to children’s expressions of an implicit mathematical utterance made while engaged in block play.
The parallel mixed methods research design consisted of two strands. Strand 1 of the study focused on preschoolers’ use of everyday language and the teachers’ responses after a child made a mathematical utterance. Twelve teachers and 60 students were observed and videotaped while engaged in block play. Each teacher worked with five children for 20 minutes, yielding 240 minutes of observation. Interaction analysis was used to deductively analyze the recorded observations and field notes. Using a priori codes for the five mathematical concepts, it was found children produced 2,831 mathematical utterances. Teachers ignored 60% of these utterances and responded to, but did not mediate 30% of them. Only 10% of the mathematical utterances were mediated to a mathematical concept.
Strand 2 focused on the teacher’s view of the role of language in early childhood mathematics. The 12 teachers who had been observed as part of the first strand of the study were interviewed. Based on a thematic analysis of these interviews three themes emerged: (a) the importance of a child’s environment, (b) the importance of an education in society, and (c) the role of math in early childhood. Finally, based on a meta-inference of both strands, three themes emerged: (a) teacher conception of math, (b) teacher practice, and (c) teacher sensitivity. Implications based on the findings involve policy, curriculum, and professional development.