What to Expect, When? Parents' Guide 2015

Stage: Early years
Article by Dr Sue Gifford University of Roehampton

This article is a discussion of the "What to Expect, When?" 4 Children Parents' Guide 2015, which is supported by the Department for Education and can be found here.

This is a guide for parents (4 Children, 2015), which identifies appropriate expectations and support in all the areas of learning in the Foundation Stage. The expectations are based on the Early Years Outcomes (DfE, 2013), with overlapping age phases and good suggestions for ways to help, like singing number rhymes and planning a picnic, will be useful for early years educators as well as parents and carers. Important ideas are emphasised, such as estimating, counting and comparing numbers.

While in many ways this guide is admirable, it highlights some issues with regard to mathematics, mainly due to the plethora of items and the lack of clear progression within different aspects, such as counting and understanding numbers. It is difficult to see how most parents will wade through all of this and decide on key aspects for focus, so they can spot opportunities to develop these.

For instance, the most important idea with regard to number in the early years, according to research, is to develop ‘number sense’ (EEF, 2015; Gifford, 2014. This involves understanding the meaning of numbers, eg knowing ‘the threeness of three’, or the ‘nineness of nine’ or their cardinal values. This needs to be linked to counting, for instance, by asking children to ‘Give me nine things’, and seeing whether they stop counting at nine, because they realise that the last number they say shows how many they have. Children who do not understand cardinal values will carry on blithely counting. According to research, another important characteristic of successful learners is understanding written numbers in terms of cardinal values. Parents can easily encourage children to match everyday numerals with a number of fingers; however, the guide does not mention ‘finger numbers’, despite their importance in many cultures. These two big ideas would be enough for parents to focus on when supporting children, along with aspects like time and money, which are more readily experienced at home.

Instead, there is an emphasis in the later stages on the sequence of numerals and recognition without meaning: for instance it is suggested that skittles are numbered and children say which number they have knocked down. Since, for instance, ‘6’ on a skittle will refer to only one object, this is more likely to confuse children than to help them understand 6 as representing six things, and to develop their familiarity with ‘sixness’.

In the Guide, the key aspects of number understanding are hidden amongst many others, without emphasis, and do not appear in the final stage at all. This is despite the glaringly obvious importance of checking that all children understand numbers to 10, before they are asked to calculate with them in school. Of course, this muddled guidance is due to the confused expectations of the EYFS Numbers goal itself, which fails to emphasise basic number sense, instead introducing skills such as counting on to add and counting back to subtract, the significance and appropriateness of which are unsupported by research. This otherwise highly supportive publication, by a helpful organization, highlights the need for more research based and simplified guidance which helps parents and educators through the maze of pointers and recommendations in the EYFS, for instance, by signalling big ideas and milestones in early number sense.


References
4Children (2015) What to expect, when? Guidance to your child’s learning and development in the early years foundation stage. Supported by the Department for Education
http://www.foundationyears.org.uk/2015/03/what-to-expect-when-a-parents-guide/

Department for Education (2013) Early Years outcomes: A non-statutory guide for practitioners and inspectors to help inform understanding of child development through the early years.
http://www.gov.uk/government/publications/early-years-outcomes

Education Endowment Fund (2015) Early numeracy approaches
http://educationendowmentfoundation.org.uk/toolkit/early-years/early-numeracy-approaches/

Gifford, S. (2014) Early years mathematics: how to create a nation of mathematics lovers?
http://nrich.maths.org/11441