Back to recent texts

Strategies to Enhance Young Children’s Mathematical Development

Lynn S. Fuchs, PhD

Nicholas Hobbs Chair of Special Education and Human Development, Vanderbilt University, USA

February 2006

Introduction and Subject

Evidence1 suggests that 4 to 7% of the school-age population suffers from mathematics disability (MD). Although this prevalence rate is similar to the rate for reading disability, much less systematic study has been directed at MD.2 Most available research describes the nature of the disorder; less work is available to inform the nature of effective prevention or remediation strategies. This relative neglect is problematic because MD is a serious public-health problem, leading to life-long difficulties in school and in the workplace and creating financial burdens on society. Mathematics competence, for example, accounts for variance in employment, income and work productivity even after intelligence and reading have been explained.3

Research Context

In the primary grades (e.g. kindergarten through third grade), number combinations and word problems are two key dimensions of performance required to establish a strong foundation. Not surprisingly, therefore, these two aspects of math skills are persistent and severe and can cause difficulty for students with MD.Number combinations are addition and subtraction problems with one-digit operands (e.g. 3+2=5). Competent performance involves automatic retrieval of answers from long-term memory. Individuals develop representations in long-term memory by pairing problems with answers using increasingly sophisticated counting and back-up strategies. Word problems are linguistically presented questions, sometimes including irrelevant information or charts/figures, for which answers require adding or subtracting of one- or two-digit numerals. Word problems also present persistent challenges for students with MD.

Key Research Questions

A key research question concerns what intervention strategies can be used to prevent difficulty or remediate deficits that develop in the primary grades.

Recent Research Results

To answer number combination problems (e.g. 2+3), typical children gradually develop procedural efficiency in counting. First, they count the two sets in their entirety (1, 2, 3, 4, 5); then they count from the first number (2, 3, 4, 5); and eventually they count from the larger number (3, 4, 5). As conceptual knowledge matures, children also develop backup strategies (2+3=[2+2]+1=4+1=5). As increasingly efficient counting and backup strategies help children consistently and quickly pair problems with correct answers, associations become established in long-term memory, and children gradually favour memory-based retrieval of answers.

Students with MD, however, manifest greater difficulty with counting5 and persist with immature backup strategies. So it is not surprising that they also fail to make the shift to memory-based retrieval of answers.6 When MD children do retrieve answers from memory, they commit more errors and manifest unsystematic retrieval speeds more than younger, academically normal counterparts.7 In fact, number combination deficits are a signature characteristic of students with MD. Prior work suggests the challenge of remediating this deficit with intermediate-grade students,8,9 which is unfortunate because number combination skill (NCS) appears to be foundational to higher-order performance.4 Given the foundational role NCS may play in the development of other math skills, along with the difficulties of remediation at higher grades, intervention may be important in the primary grades, when MD emerges.

Two competing approaches to intervention exist. With conceptual instruction, the teacher structures experiences to foster interconnected knowledge about quantities, with teacher explanations to guide students to correct understandings.10,11 The assumption is that NCS evolves from strong concepts, which lend meaning to the strings of numerals constituting arithmetic facts.12,13,14,15 The second intervention approach is drill and practice, whereby repeated pairings of problem stems with correct answers establish representations in long- term memory. Siegler’s distribution of associations model16,17 accounts for the potential importance of both approaches. The model poses that early counting skills and backup strategies provide the basis for response accuracy. All results for a given problem constitute an individual’s associations for that problem; so early errors interfere with the retrieval of number combinations later on. This suggests the need for better strategic thinking in the early stages (promoted by conceptual instruction) and the need for routine pairing of correct answers with problem stems (enhanced via drill and practice).


Unfortunately, there have been few investigations of intervention efficacy to develop NCS with children as early as in first, second or third grade. Most efficacy work is remedial, conducted with intermediate-age students, focuses exclusively on drill/practice and provides mixed results.18,19,20 One of the few early intervention studies21 was a small pilot in first grade to assess the efficacy of computerized drill/practice. At-risk students (n = 33) were randomly assigned to analogous drill and practice conditions in math or reading, stratifying by classroom (so that students in the same classrooms were in both conditions). The reading intervention served as the control for the math intervention. Students completed 50 to 54 sessions over 14 weeks and were pre- and post-tested. The math group improved significantly more than the reading group (ES = 0.92). In an ongoing remedial study with older students,22 drill and practice software was integrated with conceptual instruction. Using a multi-site randomized controlled field trial, 128 remedial students have so far completed intervention, and results reliably favour the experimental over the control group (ES = 0.73).

With respect to enhancing word problem skill (WPS), most research has assessed the value of planning and organization strategies with middle- and secondary-school students. For example, Montague and Bos23 assessed the effects of an eight-step metacognitive treatment with six adolescents with learning disabilities. Students were taught to read problems, paraphrase the problems aloud, graphically display known and unknown information, state the known and unknown information, hypothesize solution methods, estimate answers, calculate answers and check answers. Using a single-subject design, the researchers showed that this metacognitive treatment promoted WPS. With group design, Charles and Lester24 provided support for a similar approach among typically developing fifth and seventh graders.

The major contrasting intervention approach for developing WPS is schema-based instruction. According to Cooper and Sweller,25 students develop WPS by first mastering rules for solving problem types and then developing schemas to group problems into types that require similar solution strategies. The broader the schema, the greater the probability individuals will recognize connections between problems they have worked during instruction and novel problems. In experimental work at the intermediate grades, Jitendra et al.26 invoked schema-based instruction to enhance WPS with good success. We have extended that work to third grade, where the goal was to promote complex WPS. For each of four problem types, students were taught problem-solution rules. Then, with schema-based instruction, children were familiarized with the notion of transfer and taught to build schemas by showing them how superficial problem features change without altering problem-solution rules. In a series of randomized controlled trials, Fuchs et al.27,28,29 provided empirical support for this approach, with large effect sizes (0.89- 2.14). More recently, Fuchs et al.30 extended this research program at third grade to address one-step change, equalize and compare word problems. Students with math and reading disability (n=40) were randomly assigned to schema-based instruction and control groups; results showed the efficacy of this approach with effect sizes of 0.77 to 1.25.


A theoretically supported approach, for which promising empirical evidence exists for promoting NCS, is conceptually-oriented instruction into which drill and practice on number combinations is integrated. For promoting WPS, the two major competing approaches are metacognitive instruction, with which teachers help students apply planning and organization strategies, and schema-based instruction. To date, however, few investigations of intervention efficacy have contrasted the two prominent approaches for promoting NCS or WPS, and inadequate work has been conducted at the primary grades. In addition, no studies of long-term maintenance have been conducted.



MD is a serious public-health problem, leading to life-long difficulties in school and in the workplace and creating financial burdens on society. In light of the serious negative outcomes associated with poor math performance, additional research is warranted to examine methods for prevention and remediation, especially in the primary grades. At present, research tentatively supports the use of conceptually-oriented instruction into which drill and practice on number combinations is integrated for addressing number combination difficulties. Metacognitive instruction and schema-based instruction represent promising strategies for promoting word problem skills.


  1. Gross-Tsur V, Manor O, Shalev RS. Developmental dyscalculia: Prevalence and demographic features. Developmental Medicine and Child Neurology 1996;38(1):25-33.
  2. Rasanen P, Ahonen T. Arithmetic disabilities with and without reading difficulties: A comparison of arithmetic errors. Developmental Neuropsychology 1995;11(3):275-295.
  3. Rivera-Batiz FL. Quantitative literacy and the likelihood of employment among young adults in the United State. Journal of Human Resources 1992;27(2):313-328.
  4. Fuchs LS, Fuchs D, Compton DL, Powell SR, Seethaler PM, Capizzi AM, Schatschneider C, Fletcher JM. The cognitive correlates of third-grade skill in arithmetic, algorithmic computation, and arithmetic word problems. Journal of Educational Psychology. In press.
  5. Geary DC. A componential analysis of an early learning deficit in mathematics. Journal of Experimental Child Psychology 1990;49(3):363-383.
  6. Goldman SR, Pellegrino JW, Mertz DL. Extended practice of basic addition facts: Strategy changes in learning-disabled students. Cognition and Instruction 1988;5(3):223-265.
  7. Geary DC, Brown SC. Cognitive addition: Strategy choice and speed-of-processing differences in gifted, normal, and mathematically disabled children.Developmental Psychology 1991;27(3):398-406.
  8. Hasselbring TS, Goin LI, Bransford JD. Developing math automaticity in learning handicapped children: The role of computerized drill and practice. Focus on Exceptional Children 1988;20(6):1-7.
  9. Pellegrino JW, Goldman SR. Information processing and elementary mathematics. Journal of Learning Disabilities 1987;20(1):23-32, 57.
  10. Fuchs LS, Fuchs D, Karns K. Enhancing kindergarteners’ mathematical development: Effects of peer-assisted learning strategies. Elementary School Journal 2001;101(5):495-510.
  11. Fuchs LS, Fuchs D, Yazdian L, Powell SR. Enhancing first-grade children’s mathematical development with peer-assisted learning strategies. School Psychology Review 2002;31(4):569-583.
  12. Domahs F, Delazer M. Some assumptions and facts about arithmetic facts. Psychology Science 2005;47(1):96-111.
  13. Landerl K, Bevan A, Butterworth B. Developmental dyscalculia and basic numerical capacities: A study of 8-9-year-old students. Cognition 2004;93(2):99-125.
  14. Lemaire P, Siegler RS. Four aspects of strategic change: Contributions to children's learning of multiplication. Journal of Experimental Psychology: General 1995;124(1):83-97.
  15. Gersten R, Jordan NC, Flojo JR. Early identification and interventions for students with mathematics disabilities. Journal of Learning Disabilities 2005;38(4):293-304.
  16. Lemaire P, Siegler RS. Four aspects of strategic change: Contributions to children's learning of multiplication. Journal of Experimental Psychology: General 1995;124(1):83-97.
  17. Siegler RS. Strategy choice procedures and the development of multiplication skill. Journal of Experimental Psychology: General 1988;117(3):258-275.
  18. Christensen CA, Gerber MM. Effectiveness of computerized drill and practice games in teaching basic math facts. Exceptionality 1990;1(3):149-165.
  19. Okolo CM. The effect of computer-assisted instruction format and initial attitude on the arithmetic facts proficiency and continuing motivation of students with learning disabilities. Exceptionality 1992;3(4):195-211.
  20. Hasselbring TS, Goin LI, Bransford JD. Developing math automaticity in learning handicapped children: The role of computerized drill and practice. Focus on Exceptional Children 1988;20(6):1-7.
  21. Fuchs LS, Fuchs D, Hamlett CL, Powell SR, Seethaler PM, Capizzi AM. . The effects of computer-assisted instruction on number combination skill in at-risk first graders. Journal of Learning Disabilities. In press.
  22. Fuchs LS, Compton DL, Fuchs D, Paulsen K, Bryant JD, Hamlett CL. The prevention, identification, and cognitive determinants of math difficulty. Journal of Educational Psychology 2005;97(3):493-513.
  23. Montague M, Bos CS. The effect of cognitive strategy training on verbal math problem solving performance of learning disabled adolescents. Journal of Learning Disabilities 1986;19(1):26-33.
  24. Charles RI, Lester, FK Jr. An evaluation of a process-oriented instructional program in mathematical problem solving in grades 5 and 7. Journal of Research in Mathematics Education 1984;15(1):15-34.
  25. Cooper G, Sweller J. Effects of schema acquisition and rule automation on mathematical problem-solving transfer. Journal of Educational Psychology 1987;79(4):347-362.
  26. Jitendra AK, Griffin CC, McGoey K, Gardill MC, Bhat P, Riley T. Effects of mathematical word problem solving by students at risk or with mild disabilities. Journal of Educational Research 1998;91(6):345-355. 
  27. Fuchs LS, Fuchs D, Prentice K, Burch M, Hamlett, CL, Owen R, Schroeter, K. Enhancing third-grade students’ mathematical problem solving with self-regulated learning strategies. Journal of Educational Psychology 2003;95(2):306-315.
  28. Fuchs LS, Fuchs D, Prentice K, Burch M, Hamlett CL, Owen R, Hosp M, Jancek D. Explicitly teaching for transfer: Effects on third-grade students’ mathematical problem solving. Journal of Educational Psychology 2003;95(2):293-305.
  29. Fuchs, LS, Fuchs D, Prentice K, Hamlett CL, Finelli R, Courey SJ. Enhancing mathematical problem solving among third-grade students with schema-based instruction. Journal of Educational Psychology 2004;96(4):635-647.
  30. Fuchs LS, Seethaler PM, Powell SR, Hamlett CL, Fuchs D. Remediating third-grade deficits in word problem skill: A pilot; 2005. Unpublished raw data.

How to cite this article:

Fuchs LS. Strategies to Enhance Young Children’s Mathematical Development. In: Tremblay RE, Boivin M, Peters RDeV, eds. Encyclopedia on Early Childhood Development [online]. Published February 2006. Accessed October 23, 2018.