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Children who look blank when asked the difference between, or the sum of, five and two, can often happily tell us that five lollies and two lollies make seven altogether and that if they had five ice-creams and ate two there would be three left.

Mental arithmetic strategies can be difficult for children to grasp because they are so abstract. Using Numicon imagery gives a visual picture that helps pupils understand mathematical language. They can build number bonds using shapes and as they play they can see how numbers can be combined. In subtraction, part of a shape can be "chopped off" and the remaining shape used to find the answer. The difference between two numbers is seen by putting a smaller shape on top of a larger one. The relationship between addition and subtraction is implicit. Those dreaded missing number sums (6+2=?+4) no longer present frustration for pupils and teachers. Numicon can also be used in a pair of balances to show equivalence - for example, a six-shape and a two-shape will balance two four-shapes.

One Reception child built shapes and pegs into towers with each level totalling six. When asked what he was doing he explained excitedly that he had made six with a three and a three, a four and a two, and three ones and a two and a one. By the time he and his classmates are in Year 1, he could have addition and subtraction facts at his fingertips.

Romey Tacon is headteacher of Peacehaven infant school, East Sussex

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