Research School Network: The Vital Importance of Early Maths

The Vital Importance of Early Maths

by Research Schools Network
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The Education Endowment Foundation’s Improving Mathematics in Early Years and Key Stage One guidance offers key principles for effective practice for 3 – 7 year olds in mathematics education, based upon international research evidence and the views of experts in this field. In this blog, Catherine Gripton from the University of Nottingham picks out her highlights from the report and considers some of the opportunities for improving mathematics provision in schools and settings.

In mathematics education, a key pedagogy is to ask What is the same? What is different?’ Teachers and children use this to build conceptual understanding by attending to change and invariance. This guidance document emphasises what is the same’, providing recommendations for effective mathematics teaching that are common across the 3 – 7 age range. The report also provides examples that acknowledge the diversity of educational contexts (‘what is different’) and demonstrate the principles in practice within different classrooms or settings.

Here, for me, are some of the highlights from the guidance report:

The key principles for effective mathematics teaching are common to early years and key stage one
. Having recommendations which apply across both phases can help with building consensus about practice in an evidence-led way. A joined up approach can provide greater continuity of experience for the child, supporting their sustained development as a mathematician through activities that are appropriate for them. This is particularly important for younger children for whom the age difference as they move from early years to key stage one can be as much as a fifth of the child’s life.

Teaching of mathematics should be informed by knowledge of developmental progressions
. Developmental progressions connect research to practice, children to mathematics, and teachers to children, according to Clements and Sarama (2014). Their learning trajectories contain probably the most well-known and comprehensive developmental progressions for early mathematics. Knowledge of developmental progressions enable educators to build on what a child already knows and support them to learn at their own rate, avoiding moving on too quickly before conceptual understanding is secured. Children enter educational settings with significant variation in their mathematics experiences and prior learning. Even for two children in similar contexts, their experiences of number, for example, can be very different depending upon their attentiveness to numerosity. Important in closing the attainment gap’ is recognising that some are simply less experienced with number. We therefore need to provide children with substantial practical and playful mathematics experiences, using developmental progressions to help identify current and next steps in learning.

Number spiral from EEF Early maths Guidance
Number development, p. 10 from EEF's new guidance report

Time, manipulatives and meaningful contexts are important for learning mathematics. Developing a secure understanding of early mathematical concepts takes time but this is a worthwhile investment for future mathematical learning. Children across the 3 – 7 age range need time (structured and unstructured) to explore manipulatives, to represent problems in their own ways, and to communicate their mathematical thinking (perhaps through drawings, jottings, manipulatives or dialogue). As children are engaged in sense making within mathematics, meaningful contexts – such as carefully selected games, stories and daily routines – are important for building mathematical understanding.

Children need opportunities to learn mathematics throughout the day. Given the differences in prior mathematical experiences, children need frequent, regular, meaningful mathematics experiences beyond the maths lesson or group time. I have recently been working with a group of primary mathematics subject leaders who wanted to increase the opportunities for maths learning throughout the school day. In their Nottinghamshire schools, they have taken steps to promote mathematical learning whilst moving classes around the school, at break times, through music and singing, at lunch time and in assemblies. These opportunities range from more explicit modelling of position and direction vocabulary when directing children around the school building, to installing extensive number lines and number tracks along the corridors on the routes to the school hall. 

At the heart of the Improving Mathematics in Early Years and Key Stage One’ guidance report is the importance of early mathematics. It is a predictor of later achievement, not only in mathematics but in school overall (Asmussen et al. 2018). Getting it right with appropriate provision in early years and key stage one is vital for future maths and other learning.

Dr Catherine Gripton is Assistant Professor in the School of Education at the University of Nottingham and works closely with East Midlands West Maths Hub with their early years programmes. She has supported many early years settings across the region in this role, and, working with the Derby Research School, Cath engaged with the consultation on the Early Maths Guidance report.


Asmussen, K., Law, J., Charlton, J., Acquah, D., Brims, L., Pote, I. & McBride, T., (2018). Key competencies in early cognitive development: things, people, numbers and words. London: Early Intervention Foundation.

Clements, D.H. & Sarama, J., (2014). Learning and teaching early math: the learning trajectories approach. 2nd ed. Abingdon: Routledge.

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