Let’s Make Numeracy Count

May 19, 2021

We all know how important reading is for our children. From a very early age, if not from their birth, many of us are reading to our little ones daily. I think back to these early reading days with great fondness and even though my son now prefers to read on his own, we still quote his favourite children’s books. Reading is considered so important that, since 1992, Book Trust, a wonderful reading charity, partially funded by Arts Council England, provides a free book starter pack for every one of the roughly 640,000 children born in the UK each year. The Bookstart programme is a brilliant initiative which has helped millions of families to get off to a great start with reading.

Of course, we also recognise the importance of numeracy and there are a number (no pun intended!) of fantastic charities committed to improving numeracy across the UK. However, at present, there is no such numerical equivalent to the Bookstart programme and yet innumeracy is every bit as debilitating as its cousin illiteracy. Indeed, poor numeracy skills have a direct impact on productively at work costing the UK economy £25.2 billion each year1. I believe that number is to Maths as reading is to English

Imagine a child who has difficult reading trying to complete a comprehension task. They must work so hard on reading each individual word that they cannot glean the meaning of the text itself. They will have to read the text repeatedly to be able to access meaning. For some, they will not be able to achieve understanding within the time frame permitted.

Now consider the following three maths problems:

  1. This diagram shows the North facing side of a building that needs repainting due to harsh weather. The paint that is to be used comes in 10 litre pots and covers an area of 12 square metres. How many pots are require to paint this building?                                                                                                 
  2.  Bus A and Bus B both stop at the depot at 10:30. The drivers switch buses and the driver from bus A forgets his lunch. Given that bus A will stop the depot every 22 minutes and that bus B will stop at the depot every 35 minutes. When will the driver be able to collect his lunch?
  3. There are 120 children at a disco. Each child will eat  two thirds of a pizza. How many pizzas will be needed to feed the children?

 

These are just like English comprehension questions. If a child does not have a basic level of numerical fluency, they simply will not be able to answer them. Trying to explain how to problem solve when numerical fluency is lacking is a little like asking somebody a question in a language that they don’t speak or giving them a text to read that exceeds their reading ability. Progress will inevitably be limited.

It has recently been reported that during the pandemic poorer children have fallen further behind in maths2 and some of the £1.7 billion funding committed by the government will be used to try to close the gap. Closing this gap must be a priority but so too must be working to prevent such a gap from appearing in the first place.

OCED Research3 into what can be done to overcome innumeracy highlight 3 important points:

  • Early intervention is key.
  • Level of parental education has a big impact.
  • Improving access to high-quality pre-school programmes is essential for low-income children.

 

It is estimated that 20% of adults in the UK are innumerate1. Research by the OECD4 suggests that low-skilled adults are least likely to be given second chance learning opportunities which means their skills remain weak and probably further deteriorate over time. Currently we focus on school education to improve numeracy skills. It seems to me that our attention should also be firmly focused on supporting parents from day one. Parents need to be helped to engage confidently with their children when it comes to numeracy so that we can prevent the fear of numeracy being passed from generation to generation. A numeracy equivalent to Bookstart would, I believe, make a huge difference to this numeracy problem. How about “Numeracy Counts”?

But what might such a Numeracy Counts programme look like? Much of what we already do to support literacy can be used to support numeracy too. Reading, singing, baking and playing board games all support literacy and can simultaneously support numeracy. There are many wonderful resources and ideas out there, we just need to get them to where they are needed.

I believe the Numeracy Counts pack itself should include some mathematical/number storybooks…

Stories are often used to help children understand the world around them and number and maths should be no different. When my son was very small these were few are far between and this led me to write my own now published stories. Today, however, there is a growing collection of books that focus on number and maths that parents can make use of at home starting from birth and going right through to early secondary level. Here is a variety of books that fit the bill:

https://www.mathsthroughstories.org/recommendations.html

In addition to storybooks, the pack could contain a leaflet giving parents a link to a series of videos. These videos would contain ideas of how they might engage with their child about number in the coming years. There are so many simple everyday things that can be done to help, for example…

Singing number songs

Like reading stories, singing number songs can begin from birth. There are lots of simple songs to choose from that will help develop counting:

  • Five little ducks
  • 12345 once I caught a fish alive 
  • 10 green bottles
  • 1 potato, 2 potatoes

 

 

 

 

Role play

Children love picnics with their Teddies and such playtime provides a great chance to think about number. If you have already eaten 2 sandwiches and you eat 1 more, how many will you have eaten altogether? If you give everyone 2 sandwiches how many is that all together? If it is just you and Teddy sharing 10 sandwiches how many will you each get? What will happen if there are 9 sandwiches? If you started with 10 sandwiches and Teddy ate 3 how many are left? Role play seems stilted when written down like this but works well in practice and provides opportunities to explore timetables, odd and even numbers, addition, subtraction and much more in a relaxed enjoyable way.

 

Playing Cards

So much can be learnt through cards. Start with snap to help number recognition and then move to double it, triple it, times by 5, times by 10 to help with times tables. This is a fun alternative to dry timetable practice. Once children are a little older the game of “golf” is brilliant. The child can be encouraged and helped to keep score for the whole family to support them with addition and subtraction.

Playing Board games

Just roll a dice or two die, adding up the numbers and moving helps with numeracy. Junior monopoly is great way to build upon this and Monopoly takes it a step further even introducing percentages when unmortgaging properties.

 

 

Cooking

Cooking and baking provide a great opportunity to engage in number. Weighing out the ingredients; working out how much more flour is needed than sugar; scaling up quantities of butter needed to make double the number of cakes are all useful strategies.

Mealtimes

These are an excellent way to introduce fractions quantities and equivalent fractions. Would you like me to cut your toast into halves? Quarters? Eighths?

As your child eats, ask questions. How much have you eaten now? How much have you got left?

 

Watching The Numberblocks together

This is a brilliant series created by Joe Elliot for CBeebies. Children and adults get carry away with the singing and dancing and can’t help but learn about numbers along the way.

 

 

Building blocks play

We use these in schools all the time and so why not at home? It is another great way to engage with numbers. You might, for example, explore square numbers by building bigger and bigger squares and seeing how many unit squares form each square. Write down the numbers and you have the sequence of square numbers. Why not then move on to cube numbers?   

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Logical thinking with buttons

How many ways can you arrange these 3 buttons? You can do this from a young age to engage logical thinking.

What happens if I have these button instead?

For those who want a real challenge what happens if you have these 4 buttons?

 

Pointing out these strategies to a parent is all fine and good but it assumes that the parent is confident with numbers themselves. As a maths teacher who has sat through many parents’ meetings, I am all too aware that this is not always the case. The pack needs to address this point and provide help to these parents too.

National Numeracy is an independent charity on a mission to enable everyone across the UK to be confident and competent in using numbers and data to make good decisions in their daily life and at work. Their National Numeracy Challenge is a great way to help people brush up their skills:

https://www.nationalnumeracy.org.uk/

 

 

I have had a go at making my first Numeracy Counts video – it can be found here:

 

 

 

My hope is to find like-minded people who want to work together to develop such a programme so that we can work towards eradicating innumeracy in the UK.

Happy National Numeracy Day!

 

 

 

Footnotes:

1 Skills for Life 2011, PIAAC 2014; National Numeracy YouGov Survey 2014; Pro Bono Economics

2 Education Endowment Fund

3 OECD Social Mobility Survey 2018

4 OECD survey of Adult Skills 2013