Supporting children to meet England’s new Early Learning Goals
Written by Catherine Gripton
The new goals
From the first of September 2021, schools in England with four and five year old children will begin assessing them against new Early Learning Goals (ELGs). In Sue Gifford’s 2020 blog post, she examined the research basis for these new goals and concluded that they ‘risk impoverishing young children’s school experiences of mathematics’. As their implementation nears, I turn to the research evidence which might guide practitioners in how to avoid this.
The mathematics educational programme in the new EYFS framework (p.10) explains the importance of mathematical vocabulary and manipulatives as well as looking for patterns and relationships, alongside ‘rich opportunities for children to develop their spatial reasoning skills across all areas of mathematics including shape, space and measures.’ These are supported by research consensus and provide helpful guidance for practice with four and five year olds. However, it is not immediately obvious how these feed into the goals and there is a real risk of impoverished experiences in mathematics if these become side-lined, particularly as children approach the end of phase assessment against the ELGs.
Interpreting the new goals: key messages for practice
The two mathematics ELGs contain significant overlap and are probably best considered together rather than separately. They require a holistic judgment of ‘best-fit’ for each child so every element does not need to be secure in order for the child to have ‘met’ the ELG. The goals emphasise the importance of number and of subitising. Children need to have regular experiences of subitising groups of up to 4 or 5 (often perceptually or ‘all at once’), as indicated in the ELGs, but also need frequent experiences of subitising with larger numbers (conceptually, by grouping) which is less clear. When children immediately recognise smaller groups (or units) within larger ones, they build an understanding of the composition of the larger number which supports part-whole relationships and the development of arithmetic processes (Clements 1999).
The ELG focus on ‘a deep understanding of number to 10’, helps practitioners (and leaders) to feel confident in continuing to explore numbers to ten without feeling pressure to move on too quickly. Comparing the relative size of the numbers to 10 is also key and there are helpful clues as to how to develop this in the numerical patterns ELG where children are expected to do this ‘in a range of contexts’. These contexts include staircase growing pattern representations of the numbers (Thouless, Lewis & Gifford, 2019) and simple linear track board games (Ramani & Siegler, 2011) which can help children make the crucial link between ordinal and cardinal numbers, developing number concepts whereby numerals and number words are associated with quantitative meaning (how many) and ordinal position (in the number sequence). In younger years, the focus should consistently be on thinking mathematically, using symbols to assist with this as appropriate, rather than on the symbols themselves (Clements & Sarama 2021).
Interpreting the new goals: what else is needed to achieve them?
The number ELG requires children to ‘automatically recall’ number bonds but are not best learned this way. ‘Memorisation’ practices do not lead to successful automatic recall (from long-term memory) according to Henry & Brown (2008) who found that teaching in this way led to poor knowledge of addition and subtraction facts. Children learn bonds as meaningful, connected knowledge which is learned in relation to other knowledge, not learned in isolation (Baroody, 2003). Number composition can be supported through conceptual subitising and exploration of visual patterns, using Cuisenaire rods, sticks of cubes, fingers and bead strings, for example. The 0 and 10, 1 and 9, 2 and 8…pattern will eventually become embedded if children are provided with regular exploration and manipulation of objects in the early years.
What is less clear from the new ELGs is that teaching shape, space and measures is crucial to achievement of the number and numerical patterns (the new ELGs). The BSRLM blog post from August 2019 explains that there is substantial research evidence pointing to spatial thinking as a predictor of later mathematical achievement, including later understanding of number lines, for example (Gunderson et al., 2012). So, practitioners should provide opportunities for children to develop spatial thinking in order to support their achievement of the ELGs. This includes block play, map making, way finding, using spatial words, physical and outdoor activity, puzzle play, working with scale (e.g. small world play), shape manipulation/prediction (e.g. box modelling and paper cutting) and exploring from different perspectives. Using spatial words, accompanied by gestures, supports spatial concept development (Bower et al., 2020).
The numerical patterns ELG suggests that number should be the teaching focus but the research evidence suggests that it is pattern that is paramount as a predictor of later mathematics achievement (Rittle‐Johnson et al., 2017). A focus on all different pattern contexts, not just number, is needed for children to find and express regularity. Children need to learn to translate (replicate in a new medium) patterns in order to generalise the pattern structure. This includes recreating the same pattern as body actions, words or clapping as well as colour, orientation, size, number, and so on. This is important early algebraic thinking which will support them to see structural patterns which is vital for their future mathematical development.
Using a range of meaningful contexts (EEF 2020), ‘hands on’ experience with manipulatives (EEF 2020), a mathematics positive environment (Maloney & Beilock, 2012) and social learning are all supportive of early mathematical development and support achievement of the ELGs. Evidence of mathematics anxiety in younger children indicates that social learning can reduce worry (Petronzi et al., 2019) and that confidence, including to make mistakes, is key (Dowker et al., 2019). Conversely, using practices that communicate a hierarchy of ‘ability’ to children can increase the likelihood of higher anxiety and reduce self-efficacy so are best avoided.
Rich mathematical experiences
In order for four and five year olds to meet England’s new ELGs, they need rich mathematical experiences. Research indicates that this includes regular varied subitising experience, a deep understanding of numbers to 10 (including bonds as visual patterns) developed through meaningful practical activity, a wide range of spatial thinking experiences and a huge variety of patterning opportunities. Learning addition and subtraction bonds in isolation should be avoided, as should practices which risk mathematics anxiety.
Dr Catherine Gripton, University of Nottingham
See our earlier blog on the consultation for the early learning goals
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Bower, C., Zimmermann, L., Verdine, B., Toub, T. S., Islam, S., Foster, L. & Pritulsky, C. (2020). Piecing together the role of a spatial assembly intervention in preschoolers’ spatial and mathematics learning: Influences of gesture, spatial language, and socioeconomic status. Developmental Psychology, 56(4), 686.
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