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(Soundbite of TV show, "Sesame Street")

Mr. COUNT VON COUNT: Greetings. It is I, the Count. And you're just in time to count some apples with me. Here we go. One, one apple. Two, two apples. Three, three apples. Yes, three, three apples.

GUY RAZ, host:

So it turns out that the Count, from "Sesame Street," is actually on to something, at least according to a new study by the University of Chicago. A psychology professor there, Susan Levine, found that if you just repeat numbers to toddlers - you know, teaching them to count, 1, 2, 3 - well, that's not enough. It's how you talk about numbers that makes the difference. And it could actually predict how well they do in math as older kids.

Dr. SUSAN LEVINE (Psychology, University of Chicago): Parents tend to engage in various kinds of talk about number, ranging from let's recite the number words, you know, count for me...

RAZ: Right, like count with them, yeah.

Dr. LEVINE: ...to actually counting objects and talking about set size. And it turns out that that second form of counting objects and, you know, saying, oh, you have four cars, one, two, three, four, while you point at them seems to be better.

RAZ: So it's not just about the sequence, it's not just about, you know, making sure that kids can say, one, and then two, and then three, and then four, but actually showing them what that means.

Dr. LEVINE: Exactly, because just about all 2-year-olds can rattle off the sequence from one to 10. But then, if you ask them to give you three objects, they'll just grab a handful. So they can say them, but they don't understand what they mean. It's like eeny, meeny, miny, moe or A, B, C, D, E, F, G.

RAZ: So explain how you did your study.

Dr. LEVINE: What we did for the study is, we went into people's homes, and we asked parents to just interact with their children as they normally would. And we videotaped those interactions. Then we went back to the lab and transcribed everything the parents said as well as how they gestured, and everything the child said and how they gestured while they were talking.

RAZ: And so what did you find?

Dr. LEVINE: Over that seven and a half-hour period, kids heard as few as four number words from their parents. And at the high end, it was over 200. And if you extrapolate that out, you know, over a week, some kids may be hearing as few as 20 number words, and others as many as 1,800. So it's a huge difference in the opportunity to learn.

RAZ: So you were looking at kids between the ages of 14 and 30 months.

Dr. LEVINE: Right. From about a year old to 2 and a half years old.

RAZ: Now, all those kids are in third and fourth grade now. What kind of correlation are you finding between their mathematical abilities at school, and the way their parents talk to them about numbers?

Dr. LEVINE: We haven't yet related the early-number talk to their math achievement at the third- and fourth-grade level. But, you know, when we look at how the early number talk predicts what the kids know about number at 4 years of age, there is a strong correlation in terms of kids' understanding on a task - where we say to them, point to 4, and there might be on one side of the page four dots, and on the other side three dots.

Kids' understanding of what four means or three means or five means is really correlated to how much the parents talked to them about number as well as whether they gave them the talk linked to objects rather than just talking about, you know, let's recite the number words.

RAZ: That's University of Chicago psychology professor Susan Levine. Her study about how preschoolers learn numbers is in the journal "Developmental Psychology."

Professor Levine, thank you so much.

Dr. LEVINE: Thank you very much.

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