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We rarely hear parents say: "Don't worry, I could never read or write" so is it still acceptable to say: "Don't worry, I was always rubbish at Maths"? Why do we say it and how do we help our children learn this fundamental life skill?


Recent calls by Sir Peter Williams, in an independent review of Maths teaching commissioned by the government, attempt to reverse this “can’t do” attitude and make sure that every pupil leaves primary school at the age of 11 without a fear of Maths.

A large amount of scientific research has also been undertaken to better understand what innate Maths talents we are born with and how we can foster them and learn effectively.

Brian Butterworth, Professor of Neuropsychology at UCL, speaking recently on BBC Radio 4’s “Am I Normal” programme, believes that: “if you’ve got poor numerical abilities you are more handicapped in every day life than if you had poor literacy abilities.” And it’s true. Maths affects so much, from telling the time, to checking the change in the shop, to buying food in the market, to cooking, to understanding mortgage offers, to paying tax and so on . . .

Making connections between Maths in the classroom and real life through activities at home is key

Carol Vorderman, famous for her Countdown “mental” Maths abilities, agrees: “Whether you like it or not, and no matter what the gossip or trivia or fashion of the day may be, the basis of our global future is one built on science and computing and manufacturing and hard business, and the language they all use is Mathematics. Unless our number skills improve, by the time our children are tax paying adults, we will have been left behind.”

Sir Peter Williams’ review seems to be a step forward in the right direction towards addressing these issues. He has outlined a number of recommendations to help grow children’s confidence and make Maths more exciting. These include the importance of rooting learning in play with shapes, time, capacity and numbers, and by seeing and feeling how numbers fit together.

We, as parents, can also play a part in reversing the current attitude and supporting teachers. Parents and teachers can work together so that we understand how Maths is now taught allowing our children to make connections between Maths in the classroom and in real life through activities at home and when we are out and about.

So, what can we do?

Given the right environment, children needn’t encounter too many difficulties, according to Professor Elizabeth Spelke, a cognitive psychologist who runs the Laboratory for Developmental Studies at Harvard University’s Department of Psychology. She believes that we have an inbuilt number sense. Through neuroscientific studies, she has found that babies react to pattern and numbers as early as three months old. A further recent US study suggests that although an innate number sense is basic to almost all animals, it can certainly improve with practice.

Manual dexterity, visual perception, mental image

Starting by playing games with numbers and counting will give the foundations for mental arithmetic. Helen Gillott, ISI inspector for Early Years, in a recent lecture to young parents, says that there are 3 important factors that develop confidence in Maths: manual dexterity, visual perception and mental image.

“I cannot stress strongly enough how important manual dexterity is for young children when they are tackling any Maths task. What we start with from Nursery through Pre-prep is manual dexterity for accurate counting.” This involves sorting and matching/recognising patterns and numbers to 10 such as seen on dominoes and playing cards.

“Firstly, we want to see if a child can show and recognise numbers up to 10. Showing numbers on fingers automatically is a fun game that you can play anywhere.” Children should continue to use their fingers for counting whenever possible, including times tables. This reinforces the exercise and helps with confidence as well as keeping a tally of what they are doing. Using number lines, number squares and counting with buttons, counters or sweets up to 10 will help develop visual perception.

Children need to also develop a mental image of what the numbers mean and what the relationship is between numbers. For example, this can be done by showing the meaning of halves and quarters when you are dividing a cake, a chicken or an apple. Once these mental images are established, children can then move on from objects to relying on their own mental imagery.

Hearing and speech play a part

Counting aloud is very important for auditory discrimination. Can your child hear the difference between 16 and 60, 18 and 80? Pronouncing words correctly also makes a difference, for example, three not free.

Helen Gillott explains: “When you are talking to your children incorporate mathematical language into their lives - more/less/smaller/before/after - do not assume that all children immediately understand what you mean.”

Using the vocabulary of mathematics whenever you can or when explaining what you are doing is one way of achieving this and helping them become confident in every day experiences:

  • I’m measuring the carpet in metres 
  • We need 50 cm of ribbon for your hair 
  • This is a 2 litre bottle of lemonade 
  • The man in the market is weighing out 2 kilos of potatoes

Counting loose change is great for counting in 2s, 5s and 10s. Helen Gillott suggests: “Show your child that there are numbers on the coins - sort them according to their numbers and then begin with the easiest, the 10s. Chanting in 2s, 5s and 10s develops rhythm for saying tables.”

What about numbers beyond 20? “It has always been my belief that children used to begin to fail in Maths at the end of Year 2 with the introduction of borrowing and carrying with tens and units because it was something that not all children have a mental image of what it meant - that is why we teach computation of numbers beyond 20 differently - ideas we took on board from countries with proven success in teaching Maths.”

Counting beyond 20 is taught initially using a 100 square grid beginning with adding or subtracting 10s. Adding, you move down the column and subtracting you move up the column. Familiarity with the 100 square layout needs practice. It is not always obvious to all that the numbers get bigger when you add or get smaller when you subtract - you have to point it out or ask what they think will happen . . .

Playing games, creating images and talking about it makes mathematical language a fun part of children’s lives without them even realising it.

Games to Play

  • Board games - snakes and ladders

  • Dominoes and card games for number patterns - picture snap, Uno, Top Trumps 

  • Jigsaws - excellent for visual discrimination, orientation and concentration 

  • Counting games on journeys, walks and shopping - 4 cars, 2 vans and a lorry - how many is that? 

  • Pointing out numbers - on coins, clocks, telephones, cooking, measuring and weighing

LINKS numeracy_and_science/maths_at_home_ primary.shtml