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 or computer games (see also Digital technology), or pretend activities involving counting.

How effective is it?

On average, early numeracy approaches have been found to have a positive impact on learning equivalent to approximately five additional months’ progress in early mathematics outcomes. There is some variation between approaches, which suggests that the way in which strategies are introduced may have a substantial effect on learning. However, existing evidence suggests that the most promising approaches can increase learning by as much as eight months.

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 reception and Year 1, 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 tend to decrease over time, which underlines that not all numeracy approaches are likely to be equally effective.

Commonly, the most effective early numeracy approaches include small group work and balance guided interaction, with direct teaching and child-led activities. 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.

How secure is the evidence?

There is a moderate level of evidence related to early numeracy approaches. The evidence base includes two meta-analyses and a number of high-quality single studies, mainly from the USA.

Findings are consistently positive, but there is some variation between programmes. A challenge for evaluations to date has been that numeracy approaches often have a 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.

For full references and effect sizes, please click here.

What are the costs?

Research indicates that knowledge of mathematics, of children’s development and development trajectories in mathematics and understanding of the kinds of activities which support early mathematical learning are all important. 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. Overall the costs are estimated as very low.

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 the introduction of early numeracy approaches?

  2. Have you considered approaches that involve small group work or guided instruction?

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