Evidence for Learning: Early numeracy approaches

Early numeracy approaches

Very high impact for very low cost based on limited evidence
Implementation cost
Evidence strength
Impact (months)

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 programs designed to develop children’s​‘number sense’ (their developing understanding of quantity and number), or more informal, such as using mathematical games including computer games or play activities involving counting or using other mathematical language.

In the Early Years Learning Framework for Australia (EYLF) version 2.0, numeracy is described as vital for successful learning. Early numeracy approaches are closely aligned with the EYLF Learning Outcome 5: Children are effective communicators’.

  • Early numeracy approaches typically increase children’s learning by about seven months.

  • Approaches supporting the development of early numeracy skills and knowledge can have an important positive impact on the early stages of mathematical learning.

  • Targeted early numeracy approaches may help children experiencing disadvantage to catch up with their peers by the beginning of formal schooling.

  • It is particularly important to teach the full breadth of early mathematics. Where numeracy focused solely on number operations or on maths as a supplementary activity, impacts were lower.

  • Professional development may be particularly important in early numeracy. Professionals’ knowledge of mathematics and of young children’s development in mathematics supports early mathematical learning.

On average, early numeracy approaches have a positive impact on learning equivalent to seven additional months’ progress for early mathematics outcomes. There is some variation between approaches, which suggests that the choice of approach and the way in which strategies are introduced are important. Approaches tend to produce larger effects when they:

  • are designed to address the breadth of early mathematics (for example, as described in the Early Years Learning Framework for Australia);
  • commit a regular amount of time to developing mathematics (between two and three hours per week);
  • are designed specifically for the early years setting involved; and,
  • include some specific individual interaction.

The most effective early numeracy approaches balance guided interaction with both direct teaching and child-led activities, depending on the age and capabilities of the child. 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.

Research into effective approaches to support early numeracy in the Australasian context is limited, but three themes emerge from the literature: child centred, active play-based approaches have been widely used in prior-to-school settings; program quality and instructional support was a predictor of early numeracy abilities; and programs focused on numeracy and early mathematics have influenced how mathematics is taught in both prior-to-school settings and in schools.

  • Approaches which used digital technology were typically as effective as those which did not.

  • Complete programs or curriculum approaches have a higher impact than when maths was delivered as a supplementary activity.

  • Studies have been conducted in 10 countries, but there is limited research in Australian settings.

While early numeracy approaches benefit all children, their impact on children experiencing disadvantage tends to be higher. There is some evidence that targeted early numeracy approaches can help children experiencing disadvantage catch up with their peers by the beginning of formal schooling, though not all approaches appear to be equally effective.

Early numeracy approaches have the potential to develop children’s knowledge and understanding of early mathematical concepts. When implementing these approaches, key considerations include:

  • Balancing individual, small group and guided instruction.
  • Ensuring that a regular amount of time is committed to numeracy.
  • Being clear which mathematical skills each activity is designed to develop.
  • Monitoring the impact of your early numeracy strategy.
  • Preparing staff to support children’s learning through early numeracy activities.

Research indicates that knowledge of mathematics, knowledge of children’s development and development trajectories in mathematics, and understanding of the kinds of activities which support early mathematical learning are all important for practitioners. As a result, professional development is likely to be particularly beneficial in supporting early numeracy approaches.

Overall, the median costs are estimated as very low. Most early numeracy approaches do not cost additional money to deliver. Costs can increase where additional professional development is purchased, or through buying equipment to support mathematical experiences such as for counting, measuring, and using money.

The security of the evidence around early numeracy approaches is rated as limited. 54 studies were identified that meet the inclusion criteria of the Toolkit. The topic lost padlocks due to the overall number of studies and because a large percentage of the studies were not independently evaluated. Evaluations conducted by organisations connected with the approach – for example, commercial providers – typically have larger impacts, which may influence the overall impact of the strand.

While findings from different studies into early numeracy approaches are consistently positive, there is some variation between approaches. A challenge has been that early numeracy interventions often have multiple elements, meaning that it is hard to definitively identify the essential features of an effective program.

Low security of evidence is not the same as evidence of no impact. Many approaches may have low evidence, not because they are ineffective but because high quality research has not yet taken place.

As with any evidence review, the Toolkit summarises the average impact of approaches when researched in academic studies. It is important to consider your context and apply your professional judgement when implementing an approach in your setting.

Evidence strength
Number of studies54
Review last updatedFebruary 2023