Ever thought about what comes before counting? pre-number learning in the early years

    Published: 18 September 2017

    Deborah Mulroney is a Teaching and Learning Adviser for Primary Mathematics at Herts for Learning.  She has been working alongside Early Years Advisers on the Early Years Fluency Project in several Hertfordshire schools.  In this blog she explains the practices and impact of the project – be prepared to grin. 

    You know you’ve heard it when the proud parent turns up for his first day and boasts that Charlie knows all his numbers up to 50 and why not be proud? Of course we know that Charlie hasn’t got a clue what one more than 3 is, but hey it’s an amazing feat of memorisation.

    In my role I often find myself in EYFS settings in schools and when I was trying to help practitioners to build the foundations of understanding with our youngest children it soon became obvious that there is not a lot of published guidance out there to help. I found a colleague (Gill Shearsby Fox) who was getting equally frustrated and so we approached our colleagues in the Early Years Team to see if there was anything we could do about it together. So Gill and I worked closely with Caroline Luck and Jane Greenslade in a collaborative piece of work to see what we could do to help practitioners across different settings.

    nitially the head scratching was considerable as we wrote the criteria for what we think the learning specifically looks like before numerals can become meaningful and that took 6 of us across both teams!

    Children have a sense of numbers before they can count. Young infants can recognize differences in sets of objects; they know how old they are; what number their favourite show is on the TV remote! However the recall of number names and the recognition of numbers (numerals) does not indicate a child’s grasp of number sense as numbers/numerals are highly abstract. Alongside children being exposed to a wide variety of numbers in everyday life the instruction of number sense needs to be prioritised. There are other skills such as pattern seeking and classifying that would need to run alongside the sense of number and comparisons to make the learning complete.



    Molly was able to create her own pattern and was confident even though she had to carry on when the grid ran out of space on the first row!

    Our team have had great success with our fluency project for KS1, in which many schools from Hertfordshire and Cambridgeshire have now taken part, and several cohorts have successfully negotiated the transition from Key Stage One to Two number ranges. It’s even been mentioned by OfSTED! You may want to read the blog “Are you and your children playful with number?” by Rachel Rayner. The confidence and flexibility in the mental agility of the children has been thrilling but of course this needs to start before KS1.

    We know that pre-number experiences can greatly support children’s development of number sense as they provide the basis for building early number concepts and lay the foundations for later skills such as calculation and estimation. So, as a group, we decided to write some materials for practitioners to use that would build children’s learning gradually and on firm foundations and then we trialled them in the hands of practitioners in Reception classes and Nurseries set in schools and P.V.Is (private, voluntary and independent nurseries) in a pilot.

    We split into two teams with an Early Years Adviser and a Primary Maths Adviser in each team working together across 6 different settings.

    This job can be such a privilege. We worked with some fabulous people and even the most confident practitioners deepened their practice through very simple changes. We made changes as we went along and as a team of advisers we agreed that the direction of travel veered somewhat along the way!

    By working with the children in different settings we realised this was not going to be an Early Years fluency project, this was going to be about making very simple tweaks to everyday practice and staying focussed on good quality talk. The children responded instinctively to learning prompts seeing patterns and making their own, classifying objects for all sorts of reasons and more and as a result our project was growing.

    The children began to subitise (when children can tell you a small quantity without the need to count the objects) very naturally at snack time, inside, outside and in the sand.



    Rose is quite sure these are in groups of 3 even though the lids are different colours, different sizes and one of the groups is a stack.

    The children were asked to match dots on the spoon and then to draw their own dot patterns to match the values.


    We were all very impressed by how secure they became with these small quantities and so this has become a regular part of provision in all learning zones focusing on the sense of the quantity rather than only the numbers that label the count.

    At the end of the pilot participants felt that they are now seizing more opportunities and being more systematic in the learning and teaching of language to improve the interaction between the children themselves and especially with the adults. The planning has been more thorough and the progression identified and planned more carefully as a result of what we saw.

    So now more hard work begins. It’s up to us to turn this into a resource we can share with everybody. Watch this space.

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