New EEF guidance published with 5 recommendations to improve early maths

Teachers and early years staff can use storybooks and puppets to help young children develop their early maths skills, according to a new guidance report published today by the Education Endowment Foundation (EEF).

The report, Improving Mathematics in the Early Years and Key Stage 1, reviews the best available evidence to offer schools five recommendations for 3-7-year olds. It highlights that story and picture books can be a powerful tool for engaging children with basic maths concepts. One example given is of a book with pictures of different animals, including a snail, a crab and an insect. The guidance advises that teachers should talk with children about the book - for example, asking children to count the number of feet that the different animals have and to show them with their fingers.

The report also cites some board games as being particularly beneficially to developing understanding of numbers. Snakes and Ladders is one example of a game that can support young children’s understanding of numbers, as the numbers are arranged in order and give children the opportunity to practise 'counting on' from a number, a key mathematical concept.

The advice is part of a recommendation on the importance of integrating maths into different activities throughout the day - for example at registration and snack time - to familiarise children with maths language and make the most of the school day. The report uses the example of a nursery class who use snack time to help children recognise numbers of objects and connect them to number words. During snack time they would point out “We have three oranges that we are going to share out”, whilst showing the numbers on their fingers. By encouraging the children to see the amount of something rather than only seeing the object, the nursery staff were helping the children to develop the habit of quantifying small groups of objects.

Improving Mathematics in the Early Years and Key Stage 1

Five recommendations to support practitioners in developing the maths skills of 3-7 year-olds

Improving Mathematics in the Early Years and Key Stage 1

The guidance on integrating maths into everyday activities is one of five recommendations in today’s report, which aims to improve early maths skills for all children but particularly those facing socio-economic disadvantage. In 2018, just 66% of disadvantaged children achieved at least the expected level of development for number at the end of the Early Years Foundation Stage, compared to 82% of their peers. Once children fall behind, it is difficult for them to catch up and are likely to fall further behind throughout school.

Another recommendation focuses on how useful concrete everyday objects such as pine cones and buttons, and maths resources like interlocking cubes and building blocks, can be for helping children to develop maths concepts. The report cites evidence that physical whole-body movement and gestures may support the learning of mathematics, for example the use of fingers for counting, moving along a physical number line, or jumping and clapping while counting.

The other 3 recommendations in the report focus on:

  • Developing teachers and early years practitioners’ understanding of how children learn maths.
  • Making sure that maths teaching builds on what children already know.
  • Providing high-quality targeted support for struggling students.

Today’s guidance is part of a series providing evidence-based advice for improving teaching in key areas for schools, including behaviour, literacy and science. The EEF will work with the sector, including through its national Research Schools Network, to build on the recommendations in today’s report with further training, resources and guidance.

Professor Becky Francis, CEO of the Education Endowment Foundation, said:

Maths plays a key role in a every child’s development. Very young children are naturally curious, noticing differences in quantity and the shape of objects. Understanding maths helps children make sense of the world around them, interpret situations, and solve problems in everyday life, whether that’s understanding time, sharing food with their peers, or counting in play.

Yet too many children struggle with maths early on and, as a result, risk falling further behind later in school. These pupils are disproportionately drawn from disadvantaged homes. To truly break this link between family income and educational attainment, we have to start early and make sure that all young people—regardless of background—have access to great maths teaching both in the early years and in primary school.

As our report shows, there are many practical ways that teachers and early years staff can help support this important area of development. It’s often about planning simple maths activities throughout the school day, like at story time and registration, but can also include high-quality interventions to help those who are falling behind to catch-up.