Early numeracy approaches

Early numeracy approaches aim to develop number skills and improve young children’s knowledge and understanding of early mathematical concepts. Activities in this area might be structured, for example through programmes designed to develop children’s ‘number sense’ (their developing understanding of quantity and number), or more informal, such as using mathematical games including computer games (see also Digital technology), or pretend activities involving counting or using other mathematical language.

How effective is it?

On average, early numeracy approaches have a positive impact on learning equivalent to approximately six additional months’ progress for early mathematics outcomes. There is some variation between approaches, which suggests that the choice of approach and the way in which strategies are introduced are important. Approaches tend to produce larger effects when they are designed to develop a particular mathematical skill (such a counting or estimating), commit a regular amount of time to developing mathematics (between two and three hours per week), designed specifically for the early years setting involved, and include some specific individual interaction.

Commonly, the most effective early numeracy approaches include individual and small group work, and balance guided interaction with both direct teaching and child-led activities, depending on the age and capabilities of the child. A number of studies also indicate that it is important for early years professionals to understand young children’s mathematical development (such as the typical stages in learning to count) and to understand how to assess this development. This understanding will support the provision of more effective activities.

Early numeracy approaches appear to benefit all groups of children, including children from low-income families. There is some evidence that targeted early numeracy approaches, including small group activities, can help children from disadvantaged backgrounds catch up with their peers by the beginning of formal schooling, though not all approaches appear to be equally effective.

There is some evidence that the benefits from early years approaches can be sustained through primary school, though in a number of studies the effects decrease over time, which underlines that not all numeracy approaches are likely to be equally effective.

How secure is the evidence?

There is extensive evidence related to early numeracy approaches. The evidence base includes three meta-analyses and a number of high-quality single studies, mainly from the USA but also from Greece, the Netherlands, New Zealand and Sweden.

Findings are consistently positive, but there is some variation between approaches. A challenge for evaluations to date has been that numeracy interventions often have multiple elements, meaning that it is hard to definitively state the essential features of an effective programme.

More studies in UK settings would be valuable.

What are the costs?

Overall the costs are estimated as very low. Research indicates that knowledge of mathematics; knowledge of children’s development and development trajectories in mathematics; and understanding of the kinds of activities which support early mathematical learning are all important for practitioners. As a result, professional development is likely to be particularly beneficial in supporting early numeracy approaches, and some assessment and professional development costs are included in this estimate. Additional equipment to support mathematical experiences such as counting, measuring, and using money is also likely to be beneficial.

What should I consider?

Before you implement this strategy in your learning environment, consider the following:

  1. Have staff been provided with professional development to support their understanding of early mathematical development and how to deliver early numeracy approaches?

  2. Have you considered approaches that involve a balance of individual, small group and guided instruction?

  3. Are you clear which mathematical skills each activity is designed to develop?

  4. How will you monitor the impact of your early numeracy strategy?