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Here is an extract and podcast from their recent article:


What’s the best way to teach early numeracy?

How should we teach maths in the early years? Should it be totally play-based? Or should it be more formal, through direct instruction?

It’s a debate that can divide the early years community. But, according to Daniel Ansari, a professor of psychology at the University of Western Ontario, the answer isn’t clear cut.

Ansari leads the university’s Numerical Cognition Laboratory and, in a Tes Podagogy episode from 2019, he explained what he thinks the best approach is.

“It’s still very much a topic of debate and people are trying to run good empirical studies to compare different approaches. When it comes to play-based, one of the common misunderstandings is that play-based implies a purely constructionist approach to education, one in which children discover concepts through play,” he says.

Free play, says Ansari, is unlikely to lead to great leaps in conceptual development. However, a combination of play and intentional instruction can be very effective. This, he admits, can be a challenging balance for teachers to strike, and the key is to get them to think about how they can be participants in the play in a way that allows them to direct children’s attention to important concepts.

“Play-based can be more engaging for children, and more age-appropriate, but it does need to be intentional,” he says. “It can’t just be, here is a set of blocks, go away and play with it and we expect you to develop the concept of number.”

The role of the teacher in the process of learning to count is really important, Ansari stresses. He explains that children will make the shift from procedural counters to understanding the meaning of counting at different ages – anywhere between the ages of 2 and 5.

He argues that trying to introduce written number representations before the verbal understanding has been reached tends to go against the evidence.

“The most important thing early on when it comes to developing number is first the verbal number sequence and then written number symbols after that. Because that means the process is only transcoding, it is just mapping the understanding you have already on to the written symbols,” he says.

He adds that teachers need to “acknowledge the non-linear nature of development” but that this “is very challenging for early childhood educators”. He says this is because, when children tend to hit Year 1, they are usually expected to be able to use numerical symbols for basic arithmetic when, for some children, they might not be at that point yet.

Such expectations, he adds, need to be looked at more closely.

“I certainly think we should not think too narrowly about ways of getting an idea of what children know about maths, number, numerical relations early in primary school,” he says.

“As with reading, children come into the early years with huge variability in their knowledge and skills, and we need to give children who may have not had the opportunity to learn about Arabic numerals in the home to show what they know about quantity. That way, teachers can scaffold them adequately. These children should be acknowledged for what they know and given opportunities to grow their knowledge.”

In the podcast, Ansari goes on to talk about the origin of numbers, how spatial skills are key in early maths learning, and what impact screening for difficulties in maths may have on long-term maths attainment.