Count down

19th May 2000 at 01:00
Singing, flapping and hopping all play a part in early numerical fluency, says Ruth Merttens

One, two, three, four, five. Six, seven, eight, nine, ten!" The sound of 30 children aged five counting in unison drifts out across the gardens of the houses that surround the school. In its way, this represents as much of a change as the introduction of the sand and water tray to infant classes did in the 1960s. Thanks to the national numeracy strategy, counting and chanting the numbers in order is back.

As the children count, an astute observer would recognise that a great deal is going on beneath the surface of this apparently banal activity. The shouted "five" and "10", then "15" and "20" provide catch-up points for those children who are still learning. Even if they get a bit lost around six or seven, when it comes to shouting "10", with gusto and waving both hands in the air, they are all back on board. It is often by filling in the gaps in this way that children make progress. Today, a four-year-old can only count as part of a group; when they are stuck, they are carried forward by the other children. Next week they are able to count individually.

The National Numeracy Strategy has introduced a range of activities, from counting to quite complex calculation strategies, to help lay strong foundations for real numerical fluency in later years. Teacher demonstration and the use of models have been crucial parts of this endeavour. Last week I found myself using a large cardboard shark and several floppy plastic fishes to demonstrate the number bonds to six to a group of reception children and the week before we had been jumping along a number track with 10 bean-bag toys.

Clearly, a teacher demonstrating something to the whole class in no way replaces or conflicts with the continued use of work in small groups or with structured play activities. Teachers working with very young children are aware that they are progressing along two fronts: pedagogic and curricular. Children in reception classes are not only learning to count, add, recognise shapes and measure, they are also learning to listen, talk and learn as part of a large group as well as to participate in a small group doing an independent activity while the teacher works with another group.

At the start of reception, we need to keep the "on the rug" maths that we do together as a class short and active. We count jumps and "wing flaps" (flapping our arms), we hop up and down a large number track and count bricks into a "magic" cloth bag where they double in number. If this session lasts five to 10 minutes on day one, it is perhaps 20 minutes or half-an-hour long by the end of the year. It is extremely lively, not at all quiet, and involves child participation. The children learn a vast amount as the teacher demonstrates a wide variety of skills from forming numerals in the air ("Did we all remember to put the hat on five?"), to finding the difference (Big Ted is on 10 so he needs to make three hops to visit Mr Frog at 13).

Similarly, at the start of their first term the amount of focused learning to a teacher agenda I would expect from children working independently in a small group will be either very limited or none at all. Using activities such as sorting the dominoes into sets of more than six dots, or using number cards to match towers of bricks, by the end of the term there is a very different picture. Children are able to engage in short but productive activities, which have a visible, but not usually written, outcome. This enables the teacher to see what has been achieved and to discuss it with the children.

The numeracy strategy has provided teachers who work in the early years with a new lease of life as well as a bank of practical suggestions and ideas. Many teachers have commented how useful and, in some cases, inspiring, they find the National Numeracy Strategy pack. There are in-service training materials to accompany it. Children learn at home as well as school and the pack provides a leaflet for parents each term containing a list of the particular targets on which their child is focusing, as well as an outline of some activities that can be shared at home.

Maths Year 2000 is a way of providing further information about how young children can become aware of the practical applications of their number skills. When parents ask how they can help their two or three-year-old in maths, I start by confirming the importance of counting. Count as you climb the stairs, count as you do up the buttons, count as you jump in the bath...

It is impossible to overstress the value of alerting children to the use of numbers in their daily lives. I am reminded of the child who informed me that she had caught the number 2 bus. She then asked: "And do you know why it's called the number 2? It's because it goes to two places, Granny's and the park."

Professor Ruth Merttens is co-director of the Hamilton maths and reading projects

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