Laying the Foundation for Math Success with Early Numeracy

By Anni Stipek

What’s the one thing teachers in the early grades must do to ensure their children experience not only math success, but academic success? They must develop their students’ early numeracy skills—the key to meeting the complex math challenges students will face in upper grades.

How can teachers most effectively build this foundational skill? The answer can be found inside a typical classroom in Singapore—home of the world’s top-achieving math students. That’s where teachers bring early numeracy development to life. They make math a visual and concrete experience that ensures students retain what they learn long-term. They energize their instruction with fun, hands-on strategies that meet the specific challenges K–2 students commonly experience. While doing so, they create confident and capable math thinkers and problem solvers.

In this article, we’ll look at how any teacher can use research-based Singapore Math best teaching practices to build this foundational skill and set young children on an early path to math success.

Why early numeracy is key

Let’s start with a definition of early numeracy. The term “early numeracy” refers to a deep understanding of numbers and number relationships and the ability to apply that understanding to solve mathematical problems in upper grades. In K–2 classrooms, the development of numeracy sense begins with counting numbers one by one and progresses to more complex skills such as subitizing and the ability to decompose and compose.

The job of the K–2 teacher is to teach not only math facts, but the ability to apply them. Speed (knowing automatically what the answer is) is very different from fluency (using what they know to figure the answer out). While drills and flash cards are still useful, teachers who use new Singapore approaches can better help children apply and extend their learning and build fluency.

Making math a concrete and visual experience

One of the key learning techniques used in Singapore is the powerful concrete-pictorial-abstract approach to addressing the math challenges their children face. A student is introduced to a concept using real objects, such as dice or number cards. The child then relates the understanding to a representation, such as a picture of the problem. In the abstract stage, the student represents the problem using a mathematical notation, such as 4 + 5 = 9. The advantage of using engaging manipulatives and math models to teach deep understanding cannot be underestimated. Math becomes a visual experience. Children who can “see” the math are more likely to remember it.

The acquisition of these important early numeracy skills cannot be informal or left to chance. Instruction must be systematic, thought-provoking, and engaging. Teachers must use questioning to teach deep understanding and involve students in learning and encourage higher-level thinking through discovery and collaboration.

Throughout their early numeracy journey, teachers also must provide children with opportunities to:

  • Look for patterns and relationships—a sign of higher-level thinking.
  • Get involved in a wide range of fun learning experiences including games, activities, centers, mental math, writing, and acting.
  • Discover multiple ways to do the same thing—a critical component of Singapore Math.
  • Engage in complex thinking and go deeper in their understanding of math.
  • Develop 21st century skills through math talk—listening to peers, critiquing their reasoning, and explaining why it works.

For more strategies and techniques for developing early numeracy, check out SDE’s webinar Early Numeracy Success: Building a Strong Math Foundation in Grades K–2 by veteran classroom teacher and Singapore math expert Anni Stipek.

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