Thursday, 9 May 2013

Racing to understand place value in EYFS

Place value is a fundamental concept in our number system, but it tends to fall between the cracks until children reach KS1. In fact many children struggle with it well into KS2. The National Strategies research project - 'Children who get ‘stuck’ at level 2C in mathematics' states place value as a key barrier to children progressing to the all important level 2B. To quote from the report...

"Most children were not able to recognise and state that there are 52 objects altogether in a set containing 50 objects that were arranged in 5 groups of tens alongside another 2 individual objects."

"In a test question, none of the children working at level 2C could identify that 37 has 3 tens; this compared with 60% of the children working at level 2B."

Neither Development Matters or the EYFS framework makes any mention of place value, so you could justifiably think 'it's not my problem' if this is where you work. However I hope that my previous post on counting shows how it can be successfully embedded from Nursery onwards.

However, the activity I set up today was never intended to tackle place value...

It started off as an attempt to engage a group of boys in number recognition. It's a group of boys that are always together, usually dressed as superheroes, and whose interaction with adults is mainly limited to 'can you put this Batman cloak on for me', 'can you make me another Ben 10 watch' and 'tcheew' (you know, the sound that Spiderman makes when he throws a web at a baddie). 

They were intrigued when the giant cardboard tube appeared, and no doubt had ideas of their own before I placed it on a slant between the bridge and a table. I sat down at the table with pen, paper, and a box of cars. Batman came up to me and spoke...

"What are you making?"

"I'm not sure yet Batman...what do you think?"

"I'm not Batman, you are"

"Why do you think I'm Batman?"

"Because you say 'Batman here' when you answer the phone from the office"

"Oh yeah, I was only joking. You're the real Batman right?"

"I am....can I have a car?"

"Ok....take one for Robin as well"

"Who's Robin?"

So off he went with the cars. He gave one to his friend and they did the obvious thing....what else would 3 and 4 year old boys do when supplied with some toy cars and a cardboard tube set up on a slant!?


After a few goes each the next natural step occurred...

"Mine went further than yours"

"No it didn't"

For me, Early Years teaching is all about intervention. You set up a learning opportunity, let the children lead it, and then intervene at the key moments that can lead them to learn something new.

I intervened...

"Can I draw a number line so you can see which car goes the furthest?"

"What's a number line?"

"I'll show you"

So now we had the learning opportunity set up...digits in place, and a motivation to use them.


Five minutes later there were about 15 children lining up to take part. Some recognised a few digits, some all, and some none. Some of those that knew all took on the role of teaching others (natural referees!), and I sat back and watched. It soon became time to intervene again...

"The cars keep falling off the end, we need more numbers!"

It wasn't my idea, this was a 3 year old girl intervening.

I brought out another table and extended the number line for them. I added the blue Numicon pieces at the side to represent the tens (with arrows drawn to show which numbers they related to), thereby supporting them in decoding the bigger numbers. They are familiar with counting in tens from our counting sessions, and I modelled how to match the Numicon with the tens digit, and then how to add on the units digit (establishing place value). The race was on again...



One boy was very proud that his car had almost reached the end of the number line. I asked him what number it was. He said 77. I was pleased that he had linked a big number with the end of the number line, and started to show him how to use the Numicon to decode 31. He was somewhat ahead of me...

"I know that's 31. My car is number 77. That would be 7 Numicons."

"Wow, that's very impressive!"



Using the National Strategies research quoted above, that's a piece of level 2B knowledge that we wouldn't expect to see for another 3 years or so. This is not a child genius (generally working within 40-60 months), and I haven't done anything particularly time consuming or exceptional to support him. However he was presented with the opportunity to piece together his existing knowledge and to 'construct' his own learning. It's served as a reminder to me that there's no harm in planning with 'unrealistically' high expectations in mind!

The Edgazette
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