Early years

count towards maths achievement

Children’s informal number sense when they enter school provides a foundation for their school mathematics achievement and strongly predicts their mathematics competence later in school.

Children show informal understanding of numerical concepts long before they start school, influencing their future achievements in mathematics. These skills can be strengthened through direct and indirect instruction in early learning settings, according to a recent ACER report. Bedrock Journalist Fiona Stutz looks at the role early childhood professionals play in understanding early numeracy development in order to construct learning contexts that assist children to develop their mathematical thinking.

A report released in 2016 by the Australian Council for Educational Research (ACER) has shown that children’s numeracy knowledge when they enter school provides a foundation for their school maths achievement and strongly predicts their maths competence later in school.

The report, Counting on it: Early Numeracy Development and the Preschool Child by ACER Research Fellow Kate Reid shows that counting skills and understanding of quantities, and the relationships between them, in the year before starting primary school predict children’s mathematics achievement.

“Children’s informal number sense when they enter school provides a foundation for their school mathematics achievement and strongly predicts their mathematics competence later in school,” Dr Reid said.

The report points to a child’s informal knowledge of numbers, or ‘number sense’, defined as the flexible use of numbers to compare, recognise patterns and solve problems.

Children show their number sense in many everyday problem solving situations involving numbers and measurement. They may reason about who has more or less, devise strategies for creating equal shares of countable objects or amounts, or use counting in a range of situations to reason about a single group of objects or to compare two groups, the report surmises. Children informally build these skills in their everyday interactions with carers and with other children, and they can be encouraged to develop their understanding in play situations, the report states.

According to the ACER report, early numeracy knowledge may initially be fragile and incomplete, but it can be fostered through interactions with parents and teachers to provide a solid foundation on which school mathematics teaching can build.

“Understanding more about preschoolers’ early numeracy development is important in informing educational practices, understanding the variation in early numeracy skills among preschoolers, fostering early numeracy among children whose skills are less developed, and understanding why some children with well developed early numeracy have difficulties learning mathematics at school,” Dr Reid said.

In the past, counting was initially regarded as a rote activity for preschoolers, with little relevance to children’s developing thinking skills.

However, it is now recognised that the emergence of counting skills is a significant conceptual development that provides a strong foundation for developing complex mathematics skills, according to the report.

Director of Borilla Kindergarten, Jenny Finlay, incorporates numeracy into the daily program at her centre which requires planning, time and resources to be made available for children to explore and become confident in the area of numeracy.

However, Jenny warns this should not be to the detriment of play and children should not feel pressured to learn.

“Educating children in our care on numeracy does not have to be highly structured and can be achieved through a play based program.

“There should be less pressure from schools, and the wider community, for formalised instruction to be occurring at this young age when research so overwhelmingly tells us that exploration and building confidence works best,” Jenny said.

Jenny employs above ratio staffing to ensure all children have time with an adult so, as with literacy, numeracy can be purposefully embedded across the many areas of the daily program in informal but intentional ways.

“Many aspects are incorporated into the daily program. For example, number songs and rhymes at transition times, adding a pattern sequence as a transition, reading books where numeracy concepts are explored.

“Cooking is another regular activity in which numeracy concepts are explored. This can be carried through to the water play activities using measuring cups. These all form the basis of my numeracy program,” she said.

The ACER report also reveals the critical importance of effective support for early childhood educators – highlighting the importance of children’s numeracy development in the early childhood years in childcare, kindergarten and the first years of schooling.

“Since early childhood numeracy development is so important for later school achievement, we must find ways to help early childhood educators provide the best possible foundation for school,” Dr Reid said.

Jenny agrees that access to professional development, adequate resources and the time to develop activities based around numeracy would help educators in doing their job.

“Adequate resources should be made available for both the educators and children, such as measuring scales and cups, books, numerous counters, play money, water play.

“Educators need time for planning, time to offer these activities in a play based environment without formal structure, time to read books together, one on one, and discuss numeracy concepts such as big, small, tall, taller, tallest.”

Already in preschool learning environments, teachers can vary significantly in the amount of mathematical information they convey while interacting with children, the report states.

Such variation is related to the growth in numeracy skills over a year, with greater growth in numeracy skills related to greater maths specific talk among teachers. Preschool teachers could be trained in the explicit use of ‘maths talk’ in their everyday interactions with children to enhance opportunities for children to develop their early numeracy skills, the report stated.

“It is important that early childhood educators know more about the skills of preschool children so that they can better encourage their development. It’s also necessary to understand the numeracy skills of preschool children to enable appropriate school entry teaching and learning can occur,” Dr Reid said.

The report, Counting on it: Early Numeracy Development and the Preschool Child is the second in the ACER series, Changing Minds: Discussion in Neuroscience, Psychology and Education. It is available at http://research.acer.edu.au/learning_processes/19.

The Queensland kindergarten curriculum, The Queensland Kindergarten Learning Guideline, shows developing numeracy skills under the area of communicating.
“Communicating key focus: exploring and engaging with numeracy in personally meaningful ways.
Significant learnings:
• exploring number symbols and their purposes,
• confidence and interest in counting and exploring patterns and relationships, and
• exploring mathematical thinking, concepts and language”.