All children, decreed Mr Blunkett a few years ago, need to "read, write and count". Bald advice, and minimal to be sure, but who could quarrel with it? Yet counting (identifying cardinal numbers, their ordination and seriation) is not a monolithic skill, any more than reading and writing are completely homologous.
It is perfectly possible to know the names of numbers without being able to identify them, to identify them without ascribing them correctly, to know them but not in sequence, to know the sequence but not be able to place numbers out of sequence back in sequence, to know the sequence but not understand its guiding principle (add one to get to the next integer).
Yet these errors will prevent any real understanding of number bonds and patterns: you can't add or subtract unless you realise that the order of the integers is fixed. To learn to count, then, is to enter the wondrous structure of number. Counting, you might say, counts.
Reception teachers, well aware of the Numeracy Strategy snapping at their heels, will be looking for early counting books which feed into that structured way of approaching numbers. The best single buy would probably be the Marmaduke's Maths series. In Counting, Size, Pattern, Sorting and Shape (Evans pound;6.99 each, Big Book version pound;14.99 each), Karen Bryant Mole uses crisp, bright photos to illustrate simple concepts. Her hero is a teddy bear called Marmaduke, who in Where's Marmaduke? plays hide and seek to the accompaniment of correct mathematical language. These appealing books use bright nursery objects for simple identification exercises. Counting is also available in Welsh.
While Marmaduke is simple description, The Fun with... series (Sizes, Numbers, Patterns, Shapes) by Peter Patilla (Belitha Press pound;3.99 each) uses the puzzle approach to help children identify numbers and mathematical concepts out of sequence, all done in decorative-plate style illustrations. Such series are clearly aimed at the early years classroom, as are One Two, Skip a Few by Roberta Arenson (Barefoot Books pound;4.99) and My Oxford ABC and 1 2 3 Picture Rhyme Book by Roger McGough (OUP pound;5.99). McGough and Sarenson, though, are more clearly language-based, using well-loved rhymes as a basis for familiarisation. Little Miss Muffet Counts to Ten by Emma Chichester Clark (Red Fox pound;4.99) similarly plays with language, using more sophisticated rhymes and word-play.
Mere listing of numbers is limited. Books like One Hungry Baby by Lucy Coates (Orchard pound;3.99) or Alfie's Numbers by Shirley Hughes (Bodley Head pound;7.99), while delightfully illustrated for the bedtime market, are not really any better than toe-counting for learning numbers. A still unbeaten classic is Charlotte Pomerantz's One Duck, Another Duck (Julia MacRae pound;4.99) which beautifully illustrates additionality and seriation with its rhythmic additions to ducks on a pond.
Rhythm and rhyme, while not mathematical language, do help in memorising facts. The rhyme of Five Little Ducks, currently available in versions by Ian Beck (Orchard pound;4.99) and Penny Dann (Orchard pound;2.99), offers a catchy way to start on subtraction. Pat Hutchins' classic The Doorbell Rang (Bodley Head, now sadly out of print) with its constant stream of visitors to share the cookies, punctuated by the refrain of "the doorbell rang" is a brilliant way to begin division as well as a loveable story.
Imaginative narrative can work well in reinforcing mathematics. Little Bunny Bobkin by James Riordan and Tim Warnes (Orchard pound;4.99) cleverly contrasts rabbit counting and predatory fox counting in a Benjamin Bunny-style adventure. Out for the Count by Kathryn Cave and Chris Riddell (Frances Lincoln pound;5.99) offers the chance to jump about through number bonds in pursuit of sleep, going up to 100. This playful story, suitable for more able Year 1 or Year 2 pupils, points to bigger structures, as does Is a Blue Whale the Biggest Thing There Is? by Robert E Wells (Wonderwise series Franklin Watts pound;4.99). An exploration of size, this engaging text starts off with 100s and builds on them to a celebration of nothing less than the whole universe. But that's where counting will take you.