Learning by the numbers

Tuesday, May 27, 2014

Research at Wilfrid Laurier University spawns new ways to teach children math

Malorie Bertrand, Canada Foundation for Innovation

Visit for more stories about humanities and social science research supported by the Canada Foundation for Innovation (CFI). By funding state-of-the-art research infrastructure in all disciplines and across the full spectrum of research from discovery to applied, the CFI gives researchers the tools they need to think big and innovate.


Nearly 40 percent of Canadian adults don’t have the minimum reading skills necessary to function properly in society and half lack the minimum math skills. People with low literacy and numeracy are more likely to drop out of school and engage in criminal behaviour, studies have shown, which means billions of dollars a year in policing and criminal justice, welfare and employment support, and reduced productivity costs.

To understand why so many Canadians don’t have these basic skills, developmental psychologist Joanne Lee and mathematics educator Donna Kotsopoulos at Wilfrid Laurier University’s Child Language and Math Lab are studying how young children learn how to count by using math language and play. After working with more than 350 families over a three-year period, preliminary test results indicate that children understand the concept of number words earlier than expected — as early as 18 months for the word “one.”

The results of this study, the only one in the world to focus on such young children, have helped Lee and Kotsopoulos launch Little CountersTM, a program offered at the Waterloo Public Library that gives parents and caregivers the tools they need to incorporate math talk into everyday activities with their toddlers.

Watch the Little Counters program in action and hear Lee explain her work in this video.

The program has reached out to more than 750 families in the Kitchener-Waterloo region and there are plans to offer it to First Nations communities and low-income families. Lee and Kotsopoulos have recently launched a children’s counting picture book called Little CountersTM at the Market and are now in talks to develop a Little CountersTM app. They have also helped Rullingnet, an Ottawa-based tech company, improve the math software for its Vinci learning tablet.


Donna Kotsopoulos will be attending the 2014 Congress of the Humanities and Social Sciences to present a talk, “Un(der)employed & Un(der)paid: Teacher work in the new economy, at the Canadian Society for the Study of Education conference today, Tuesday, May 27. This article originally appeared on in February 2013. Since then, Kotsopoulos and Lee wrote Let's talk about math: The LittleCounters® approach to building early math skills, published by Brookes Publishing Co. in 2014.


Congress of the Humanities and Social SciencesCongress 2014