Math achievement: U.S. vs. Japanese first-graders

iStock_000008353112_ExtraSmallJuchi, juni, niju. In English, these Japanese words translate as ten-one, ten two and two ten(s). Or, to our way of speaking, eleven, twelve and twenty.

Research by Irene Miura (San Jose State University) and Yukari Okamoto (Stanford University) determined that the Japanese language appears to give to Japanese children an understanding of place value, even before they receive math instruction in school.

Language difference provides advantage

Although identical in written form, numbers vary considerably in their verbal forms. In Asian languages, such as Japanese, which are based on ancient Chinese, numerical names are congruent with our Base 10 numeration system.

In other words, the Japanese language represents the names of numbers in a way that explains their value in a Base 10 system. In Japanese, the spoken numerals correspond with their written form [12 = juni (ten-two), 20 = niju (two-ten)].Indications are that these differences in numerical language result in fundamental differences concerning how children from two different cultures cognitively represent numbers. Asian language numerical names actually assist children in constructing representations of numbers on a Base 10 system.

Since an understanding of place value is necessary to comprehend regrouping in addition and subtraction, it would seem that Asian language numerical names also facilitate math reasoning and computation.

Predictably, cross-cultural comparisons of math performance generally favor Asian students. It is true that a greater proportion of total school time is spent on math in Japan and Taiwan than in the U.S., however, superior performance is already apparent in the first grade, before teaching could account for such differences.

In support of their findings, Miura and Okamoto note that as Asian language proficiency declines with successive generations of Asian families living in the U.S., math performance declines among their children. How much is due to lack of fluency in Asian language and how much is due to acculturation and socialization is not known.

Research shows that language facilitates understanding

Twenty-four first graders from upper middle class families in the U.S. and twenty-four in Japan participated in this study by Miura and Okamoto. There were no bilingual students in either group. The two groups were carefully selected to match each other in all characteristics. Each child was seen individually for evaluation.

Testing consisted of using Base 10 blocks (blocks representing tens and ones) to represent numerals printed on cards (13, 24, etc.). Two practice trials with coaching were permitted to ensure children understood the task and two trials were allowed on each test item. T

he second portion of the test required the children to point to the numeral in the ones position and then the tens position and to represent the whole numeral using the blocks. Additionally, measures of math achievement were obtained from the Educational Records Bureau test, a written group achievement test used mainly by private schools in the U.S.

Test results revealed no differences between boys and girls within their respective countries. As expected, Japanese children used the tens blocks more frequently to represent numerals.

Japanese children also showed significantly greater understanding of place value. For Japanese children, their greater understanding of place value and more frequent use of the tens blocks corresponded with higher achievement scores. U.S. children comprehended the quantity represented by the numerals but appeared to lack understanding of the place value of individual digits.

Because of the complementary relationship between the Base 10 number system and words designating numbers, it was concluded that the Japanese children have a natural tendency to represent numbers using a Base 10 construction. This seems to facilitate an earlier understanding of place value which, in turn, results in a higher level of math skills in the early primary grades.

The differences in performance by U.S. and Japanese children is further underscored by the fact that the U.S. children were tested at the end of the first grade by which time place value had been introduced and discussed several times. The Japanese children, on the other hand, had just begun the second trimester of first grade and place value had not yet been introduced.

Japanese spend more time on math

Language advantages notwithstanding, other factors influence math performance. Japanese schools spend more time per day on math and, by second grade, differences in the pace of the math curriculum are apparent. Less time is needed to teach regrouping in second grade.

This allows the Japanese second graders to complete the 1-9 multiplication tables which are usually part of the third grade curriculum in the U.S. (The 1-5 multiplication tables are introduced at the end of most second grade textbooks in this country, but are repeated in third grade.

Although not considered in this study, it should be noted that Japanese children, particularly from upper middle-class homes, often start preschool as young as three. Elementary, as well as upper school students are often enrolled in after-school or Saturday classes and schools also assign ‘summer homework’ to their students.

The fact that Asian students appear to have an early natural advantage over U.S. students in understanding place value cannot be used to explain later differences in math achievement between the two countries. However, this research points out that providing more experiences with place value in our Base 10 system could be helpful in getting our children off to a strong start in mathematics. Nevertheless, our students cannot expect to equal the achievement of Japanese students until they spend an equal amount of time studying math.

“Comparisons of U.S. and Japanese First Graders’ Cognitive Representation of Number and Understanding of Place Value” Journal of Educational Psychology March 1989 Volume 81 Number 1 pp. 109-114.

Published in ERN May/June 1989 Volume 2 Number 3

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