Storybooks could help children’s maths

Tutoring programmes and storybooks can help improve children’s attainment in maths, according to a new evidence review led by UCL researchers.

The evidence review, published today by the Education Endowment Foundation (EEF) and written by a team from the UCL Institute of Education, the University of Brighton, Loughborough University and Ulster University, synthesises the best international evidence about the teaching and learning mathematics for children in Early Years and Key Stage 1 (between the ages of 3 and 7). It is primarily concerned with the effects of different teaching approaches, or interventions, on attainment and informed the EEF’s guidance, Improving Mathematics in the Early Years and Key Stage 1.

The review found that tutoring programmes can have positive impact on maths achievement, especially for low-attaining children. However, this is likely to be the case where the support is delivered through structured interventions that have been designed to address specific weaknesses in numeracy. This finding is of particular relevance for schools and national programmes such as the National Tutoring Programme in addressing the effects of the pandemic on attainment, both generally and for children from disadvantaged backgrounds.

The authors note that almost all effective tutoring programmes have been developed by expert teams that have been informed by research on children’s mathematical development. They tend to involve regular sessions over an extended period equivalent to a term or more. For these structured interventions, delivery by teaching assistants appears to be as effective as delivery by teachers. However, most of these interventions involve considerable guidance and professional development or coaching for tutors.

The authors identified a small but growing body of research indicating that educator-led use of well-chosen storybooks can be effective as they provide an opportunity to support high quality mathematical talk and discussion. However, the researchers stress that educators need to consider carefully how, and which, storybooks should be used to help children develop more sophisticated mathematical ideas.

Computer-assisted instruction and explicit teaching were also examined by the authors. There is a large body of evidence demonstrating that interventions delivered through apps or computer-assisted instruction (CAI) or where guidance from teachers is high can have a positive effect on children’s attainment in mathematics. However, much of the evidence relates to software that is not distributed in England or designed for the English mathematics curriculum. The authors state that there is a need for research evaluating the effects of apps and CAI specifically developed to align with the mathematics curriculum in England. 

The review covers a broad range of other interventions, from relatively ’small-scale’ strategies, such as the use of manipulatives, to ’large-scale’ programmes that are intended to cover the entire Early Years and Key Stage 1 curriculum for a term or more. However, the authors note that the evidence base is relatively weak for many approaches. The authors recommend that researchers improve this evidence-base by testing how effective mathematical interventions are, particularly for interventions valued by many practitioners, such as play-based approaches.

Professor Jeremy Hodgen said: "Raising young children’s attainment in maths is vitally important and particularly so during the current pandemic. Our review, and the guidance it informed, provide valuable evidence for teachers and other educators about effective ways of improving young children’s understanding of mathematics."

’Early Years and Key Stage 1 Mathematics Teaching: Evidence Review’ was published on 20 November 2020. The Review was written by Professor Jeremy Hodgen (IOE), Dr Nancy Barclay (University of Brighton), Dr Colin Foster (Loughborough University), Professor Camilla Gilmore (Loughborough University), Dr Rachel Marks (University of Brighton) and Dr Victoria Simms (Ulster University).