Maths symbols are a foreign language
Abstract symbols such as "+" and "=" and written "sums" can be as problematic for young learners as learning to write in the first place and as foreign to them as writing in an unknown alphabet or script.
It has been known for many years that "written" maths causes difficulties for young children, yet this important aspect of the curriculum is still barely addressed. Of course, number games and practical maths (eg with blocks, sand, water and games) provide valuable mathematical experiences, but are not directly related to children's understanding of written mathematics.
Our research has shown that children learn about written maths through using their own "written" symbols and exploring calculations through their own graphics. This is inclusive maths that builds deep understanding of the written language of mathematics and establishes strong foundations for the future.
Curriculum guidance for the foundation stage and numeracy strategy advocates "building on" children's early marks and encouraging them to explore their own written methods. Ofsted has said a lack of opportunities for children to explore their own ways of calculating are a "barrier to creativity".
However, our recent research with almost 250 teachers and practitioners from nursery to Year 1, showed that there is considerable confusion over the official guidance about starting to teach written maths. Current research also highlights the tensions over developing children's early marks.
One nursery teacher explained that there is a "no-man's land" between very early mark-making and standard written maths.
There is a dearth of guidance on how teachers should support the beginnings of written mathematics and no examples of children's own graphics are included in official documents.
Another problem is that neither the foundation stage document nor the National Numeracy Strategy shows the development of children's mathematical graphics, something that would be invaluable in supporting adults'
understanding and assessment.
The question is not "what's wrong with maths?", but "how can we make the beginnings of written mathematics right for young children?"
Supporting children's own mathematical graphics could offer a solution to this important question and establish confidence, enjoyment and understanding in mathematics from an early age.
Free University, Amsterdam
Head, Redcliffe children's centre, Bristol
(both former National Numeracy Strategy consultants)