Reading Time: 2 minutes

Many older students find mathematics difficult. This is usually because they have not been alerted, early in life, to the fact that mathematics is all around us and forms the basis of most human activity. It is crucial, therefore that adults working with young students use accurate mathematical language in everyday talk to ensure an increase in understanding to support them in later life.  It is useful for teachers and assistants to have focused discussions about how this can be achieved. Consider carefully these basic aspects of mathematics – number, calculations, space, shape, measures and information gathering.

Teach students to count by rote so they know the order of numbers. Begin with their age (3-5) as this number is very important to them. For a four-year-old, place four objects on a sheet of paper and count them one by one. Then get the students to find other objects and count one by one up to four, and recognise that the last number counted is the total value of that set. Once the student is comfortable with counting, gradually introduce the concept of one more than and one fewer than, so they can make comparisons. You can then move them forward in their understanding of number within ten and then twenty.

Help students to identify a pattern in animals such as tigers and zebras. Show them how to create their own simple repeating patterns. Begin with two colours or objects and encourage them to predict which comes next. As students become confident, increase the complexity of repeating pattern. These enjoyable activities help develop algebraic understanding in later life. 

Teach students how to recognise and name two-and three-dimensional objects to give them spatial awareness. By playing with a range of two-dimensional shapes, they quickly learn which fit together, without space in between, and how to create new shapes by combining them together. When students use three-dimensional shapes to create simple buildings, they are developing an understanding of the need for a solid base or foundation. This is basic engineering and elements of architecture.  

Use the classroom environment and relevant equipment to help students learn about measurement. Teach them the words they need to compare length and weight of two or three objects. Show them how to use non-standard tools, such as hands feet or arms for measuring. Teach students positional vocabulary in everyday situations.

Show students how to collect and analyse data in a practical way. By using, for example, a box of coloured crayons or small construction equipment, they can learn how to collect and analyse data. Place each colour in columns starting from the bottom and raise questions such as, ‘Which has the most?’; ‘Look at the red and blue columns, which has more?’

Make sure you teach mathematics in a progressive way to ensure new concepts are understood. Provide play activities and observe students to assess their basic understanding in relation to mathematics. Then, plan and provide a range of relevant activities to move their learning forward. Assess how well they have grasped the new concepts and move on or repeat the activities in a slightly different way to promote understanding.  


  1. Always use accurate mathematical language throughout the day
  2. Assess what each student knows and can do before planning activities.
  3. Use practical everyday resources and equipment to make mathematics meaningful.
  4. Make sure students can count by rote at first so they know the names of the numbers. Always start with zero.

By Gianna Ulyatt


Institute of Education Sciences.