Evidence for Learning: Early numeracy approaches

Early numeracy approaches

The summary below presents the research evidence on early numeracy approaches in the Australasian context.

The Early Childhood Education Toolkit focuses on impact; it presents an estimate of the average impact of communication and language approaches on learning progress, based on the synthesis of a large number of quantitative studies from around the world.

This page offers a summary and analysis of individual Australasian studies on communication and language approaches. In contrast to the Early Childhood Education Toolkit it includes studies which do not estimate impact, but instead investigate the implementation of interventions and how they are perceived by early learning professionals and young learners. This information is valuable for early learning centres interested in finding out more about particular examples of communication and language approaches that have been delivered in Australia and New Zealand.

Edith Cowan University generated this evidence summary on behalf of CoLab (a partnership between Telethon Kids Institute and the Minderoo Foundation) in July 2019.

There are many ways to support early numeracy with Australasian research into the most effective approaches increasing but still limited. There has been a move away from simple views of mathematics that involve counting and basic shapes to a more competent view of children and broader range of skills. Mathematics learning starts long before children start school and involves more complex concepts than previously thought. This summary identifies three key approaches found in the Australasian literature.

Child centred, active play based approaches have been widely used in prior-to-school settings (Reid, 2016). Using an emergent curriculum, the learning of mathematics is founded on children’s interests as they emerge through play and routine opportunities. Building on Funds of Knowledge is seen as central to this approach. Australian studies by Niklas, Cohrssen and Tayler (2016) and the Let’s Count’ longitudinal study (Gervasoni, Perry, & Parish, 2015) found that most children accrue significant mathematics knowledge at home before starting school. Programs like Let’s Count encourage playful learning in the home and community to enhance engagement, leaning outcomes and positive dispositions to mathematics. However, other studies (Kinnear & Wittman, 2018) have found that play and spontaneous learning through everyday concepts are not enough and that intentional teaching of specific concepts is required.

Program quality and instructional support was a predictor of early numeracy abilities in the E4 Kids large scale study of over 2000 children (Niklas & Tayler, 2018). The E4 Kids study found that children are capable of deeper understanding especially with mathematically rich programs that include intentional teaching. Other Australian studies that have incorporated this approach include Chigeza (2018) who recorded conversations with Australian Kindergarten teachers and reviewed wider literature, to find that modelling the creative use of language could promote an active learning environment and assist to build and communicate numeracy ideas. Chigeza and Sorin (2016) used an action research project to explore methods of teaching mathematics through drawings and explanations in schools in Australia and Canada. They found examples of students demonstrating spatial orientation and the quantification of objects in some of the postcards produced in the project. Research from Colliver and Arguel (2018) found in their intervention study that educators who demonstrated problem solving during play had better learning outcomes.

Program approaches have influenced how mathematics is taught in both prior-to-school settings and in schools including the Count Me In Too Project (NSW Department of Education and Training (DET), 2002). Based on this program Gould (2012) conducted a study of 65,000 children with an average age of 5.3 years when starting school using the Schedule for Early Number Assessment test (NSW DET, 2002). It was found that oral counting was an essential skill to be well developed before progressing onto more complex number knowledge such as numeral recognition, understanding of quantity, addition and subtraction. Significant studies on pattern and algebra have been conducted by Mulligan and Mitchelmore (2009, 2012) in the Pattern and Structure Mathematical Awareness Program (PASMAP). In this intervention program children are encouraged to seek out and represent patterns and structures. A two-year longitudinal study of 5‑year-old children found they were able to solve a broader range of mathematical problems to promote generalisation in early mathematical thinking (Mulliigan et al, 2011).

Colliver, Y., & Arguel, A. (2018). Following in our footsteps: How adult demonstrations of literacy and numeracy can influence children’s spontaneous play and improve learning outcomes. Early Child Development and Care, 188:8, 1093 – 1108, DOI:10.1080/03004430.2016.1248958

Chigeza, P. (2018). Educators’ perceptions of the role of language when kindergarten children learn numeracy. Journal of Narrative and Language Studies, 6(11), 205 – 216.

Chigeza, P., & Sorin, R. (2016). Kindergarten children demonstrating numeracy concepts through drawings and explanations: Intentional teaching within play-based learning. Australian Journal of Teacher Education, 41(5), 65 – 77.

Gervasoni, A., Perry, B., & Parish, L. (2015). The impact of Let’s Count on children’s mathematics learning. In M. Marshman, V. Geiger, & A. Bennison (Eds.), Mathematics education in the margins: Proceedings of the 38th Annual Conference of the Mathematics Education Research Group of Australasia (MERGA38) (pp. 253 – 260). Adelaide SA Australia: Mathematics Education Research Group of Australasia.

Kinnear V., Wittmann E.C. (2018). Early mathematics education: A plea for mathematically founded conceptions. In: Kinnear V., Lai M., Muir T. (eds) Forging Connections in Early Mathematics Teaching and Learning. Early Mathematics Learning and Development. Springer, Singapore.

Mulligan, J., & Mitchelmore, M. (2009). Awareness of pattern and structure in early mathematical development. Mathematics Education Research Journal, 21(2), 33 – 49.

Mulligan, J., Mitchelmore, M., English, L., Welsby, S., & Crevenstein, N. (2011). An evaluation of the pattern and structure mathematics awareness program in the early school years. Mathematics: Traditions and [New] Practices, Proceedings of the AAMT – MERGA conference held in Alice Springs, 3 – 7 July 2011. 1022 – 1030.

Mulligan, J., & Mitchelmore, M. (2012). Developing pedagogical strategies to promote structural thinking in early mathematics. In J. Dindyal, L. P. Cheng, & S. F. Ng (Eds.), Mathematics education: Expanding horizons. Proceedings of the 35th Annual Conference of the Mathematics Education Research Group of Australasia (pp. 529 – 536). Singapore: MERGA.

Niklas, F., Cohrssen, C. & Tayler, C. (2016). Parents supporting learning: A non-intensive intervention supporting literacy and numeracy in the home learning environment. International Journal of Early Years Education, 24:2, 121 – 142, DOI: 10.1080/09669760.2016.1155147

Niklas, F., & Tayler, C. (2018). Room quality and composition matters: Children’s verbal and numeracy abilities in Australian early childhood settings. Learning and Instruction, 54, 114 – 124.

NSW Department of Education and Training (DET) (2002). Count me in too professional development package. Sydney: NSW Department of Education and Training.

Reid, K. (2016). Changing Minds: Discussions in neuroscience, psychology and education.Counting on it: Early numeracy development and the preschool child. Camberwell, Vic: Australian Council for Educational Research (ACER).

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Early numeracy approaches; numeracy in early childhood; early childhood mathematics; mathematics; mathematics in the early years.