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Ways forward with ICT: Effective pedagogy using ICT for literacy and numeracy in primary schools

Developing counting skills in Reception using ICT

The school

This school is in an inner city area where a high proportion of the parents are unemployed. Over 70% of pupils receive free school meals. Pupils are achieving below national expectations on entry to the school; however, the school is widely recognised as being effective at raising standards of achievement. The school is currently focusing on developing the core subjects and on supporting teachers in using ICT effectively, particularly through the recently installed computer cluster.

The teacher

The teacher has been teaching at the school for six years and usually teaches Reception children. She enjoys working closely with colleagues and feel this has been an important part of her development as a teacher:

"Well, I think the most helpful (aspect) has been working closely with different teachers: picking their brains and sharing ideas."

When planning activities she likes to make links between different activities and to draw out connections for the children.

"Sometimes, it's skill led. For example, they might need work on number recognition, or using number lines, and it isn't always linked. But usually we do something that is to do with counting, a counting rhyme or acting out a song which is linked to other activities."

She believes that ICT is an important part of pupils’ education and sees it as a high priority.

"I see it with my own children, how much the computer supports their learning. I think the problem is really the teacher trying to keep up with the children, because they take it on board so quickly."

The pupils

When assessed at the beginning of the summer term some pupils were making errors in reciting the number names accurately, particularly numbers from 13-19 and at the decade transitions such as 29 to 30; some had inaccurate touch counting skills and strategies which led them to give an incorrect total at the end of a count; and some were also unable to identify the correct written number to go with a number name with numbers up to 20. The teacher was therefore keen to address these issues in a broader way. She saw ICT as enabling her to do this in the project more effectively than she had been able to previously. The teacher found the diagnostic information from the baseline test used by the project very useful. It gave her detailed information about the particular counting errors that specific pupils were making. In addition to the work using ICT, she planned other mathematical activities to address pupils’ difficulties.

Reception pupils creating counting pictures. Some features of the program encouraged collaborative working, such as the ability to increase the size of the stamped pictures using a combination of keys and the mouse.

The aim of the project

The aim of this project was to improve pupils’ counting skills in these areas. The teacher wanted activities which were appropriate to the pupils’ attainment. Some pupils still needed to consolidate their knowledge of the sequence of number names, others needed practice in co-ordinating their touch counting so that they could count collections of objects reliably. Most pupils were developing their numeral recognition and writing skills. The activities were therefore planned to develop pupils’ abilities in each of these areas.

The teacher’s choices

The teacher chose to use a children’s painting program (Kid Pix/Brøderbund Software) which has the facility to let children stamp a variety of pictures on to the screen. She wanted pupils to be able to use the program to practise specific aspects of counting and therefore emphasised different counting skills with different children. Other counting programs aimed at this age group tend to be appropriate only when pupils can already touch count accurately. Her approach enabled pupils to work on the different aspects of counting which had been identified in the initial assessment. One feature she valued in this particular program is that the pupil can select numerals to stamp and the number name is spoken by the computer as this choice is made. This helps pupils to associate the number name with the numeral.

A pupil’s counting picture. After initially working independently, the pupil was joined by the teacher for a discussion to assess his understanding.

Once the pupils started the activities the teacher encouraged them to count the number of different items in the pictures as they used the stamps. Then she encouraged them to count again once the picture was complete through reviewing what they had done. This enabled her to teach them to count systematically. In addition, using the numeral stamps enabled the pupils to hear the number names and associate the correct symbol with a collection of objects. The program therefore gave pupils feedback which helped them associate the correct numeral with the spoken name. This enabled her to reinforce the specific number objectives while using the ICT and seemed to her to be a natural development of the task.

These activities were chosen to complement other class and group counting activities which the teacher had planned for the term. She was able to integrate the creative activity the children did on the computer cluster with counting and number activities in the classroom. She felt that in the past she had focused on activities for sorting, comparing and matching, and had not developed the pupils’ use of language in number and counting through these activities sufficiently.

The teacher was critical of some aspects of another piece of software she had used. This encouraged pupils to add or remove items from a farmyard screen using the keyboard. However, it had no clear mathematical goal or purpose for the pupils. It could be used effectively with an adult present to encourage pupils to use mathematical language accurately, but it was difficult for pupils to achieve these number objectives without this level of support.

"I'd used that computer program for the wrong reasons, I think. I hadn't got out of it what I wanted to, and it was too difficult for the children to use on their own."

Although she continued to use the program to support the pupils’ development of their IT capability, she no longer considered it as part of their number skills development.

By contrast the teacher thought that creating mathematical pictures, and having pupils count out loud as they did so, enabled them to use the painting software more independently. The children were able to use the program to create a variety of counting pictures over a period of several weeks. This matched a number of the teacher’s mathematical objectives for the term such as getting the pupils to practise using their counting vocabulary, improving the reliability of their counting, teaching them more systematic counting strategies, and helping them to recognise and use numerals.

"The Kid Pix program was quite different from anything I've used before, because the programs we've used before to support numeracy had been very closed."

"We didn't have much in the way of numeracy materials, whereas using the painting program has really helped, and the children have used a lot more mathematical language."

The teacher valued the opportunity to ask key mathematical questions as she supervised the children’s work. She also felt it was important to review the finished pictures with them so that she could assess their counting skills. This could be done with an individual and with a small group or the whole class.

One further benefit from this approach was that the pupils could create counting pictures to use away from the computer, or to take home to share with parents. This aspect was valued by the pupils and encouraged them to create a range of pictures. The pictures were also saved and incorporated into a basic desktop publishing program, which combined text and pictures.

A counting resource created from a pupil’s picture. The picture was saved then inserted into a basic desktop publishing program.

Resources were therefore created for the children to use in number focused sessions back in their own classroom. This approach takes advantage of a number of aspects of the features of ICT, in particular the provisional nature of the counting pictures as they were created, and the way the resulting pictures could be presented in different forms for use by the teacher and pupils in number sessions. This created a further audience for the work and a purpose for the pictures which the pupils could understand.

An additional reason for the choice of the particular approach adopted was because the school had recently installed a computer suite with 12 PCs. The teacher was keen to introduce the pupils to the cluster and teach them skills which enhanced their IT capability (in terms of the National Curriculum for IT) as well their creative development. In these activities this was through making pictures with a computer where the pupils were being introduced to a toolbox environment.

Pupils working at a computer on the school’s cluster. Although a group of computers is efficient for teaching pupils, it is difficult to organise seating and the position of the screens so that it is suitable for Reception and Year 6 pupils in a primary school.

The teacher did encounter some problems in using the new machines, particularly in printing out completed pictures on the networked colour printer. This was frustrating both for the teacher and the pupils.

The results from the testing

As part of the project in the summer term, a target group of pupils was identified whom the teacher thought would benefit from the ICT work. Accordingly a standardised test of early maths concepts was conducted with five pupils. Three pupils of average attainment served as controls. On re-test the target pupils all showed that their counting and number ability had improved. They had also improved relative to the other three pupils. The next class was tested at the beginning and end of the Autumn term and made similar impressive gains on a standardised test of mathematical ability.

It is clearly not possible to say on either occasion that the pupils’ improvement could be directly attributed to the ICT activities, especially as the teacher used the information from the standardised test to inform her planning more broadly. However, the results suggest that carefully planned and structured ICT activities with clear mathematical objectives can play an effective role in improving pupils’ counting skills.

Developing this approach

In developing this approach in the following autumn term, the teacher had the painting program available on a computer in the classroom. This was because maintaining regular sessions on the cluster of machines was difficult. Organising a large group of Reception pupils to use the cluster effectively, which was located at the other end of the school, was challenging in itself, but it also required support from other staff in the school to work with the remainder of the class. In addition, in the autumn term of Reception, the teacher thought that pupils would need to develop their fine motor skills in using the mouse before they would be able to use the computer to create counting pictures, and so achieve the mathematical objectives for the activities. The computer in the classroom had a smaller mouse with one button which she felt the pupils found easier to control.

Having a computer in the classroom enabled the pupils to continue working between sessions on the cluster, and enabled the teacher to demonstrate a pupil’s work to the whole class. This also led to the teacher and pupils developing counting pictures linked to rhymes, such as Ten Green Bottles, which could be combined easily to produce a slide show of the rhyme for the class. She also planned activities where she discussed counting with small groups of pupils. For example, she drew a house outline herself and the pupils used the stamp tool to indicate how many people lived in their house, or how many beds or televisions there were at home.

A ‘counting house’ picture. The teacher created a template to work with pupils at the computer as a focus for discussion of things they had at home.

Future plans

The teacher is keen to extend her use of this program to teach other specific aspects of maths. One idea she has started working on is teaching an understanding of ‘more’ as a quantifiable amount. Most of her Reception pupils could identify which of two groups of objects had ‘more’, but were unable to answer the question "How many more?". Adding objects to pictures using the stamp tool seemed to help them understand that they could compare and count how many more they had added. The teacher therefore plans to undertake further work with counting pictures to teach this.

A Reception pupil creating a counting picture. This activity seemed to appeal equally to girls and boys.

Features of ICT

When the pupils were using ICT they were making use of the speed and automatic functions incorporated into the painting program. In particular, the use of the picture stamps enabled pupils to create pictures quickly, and the automatic speech function provided numeral and number name reinforcement. In addition, the teacher was able to make use of the provisionality ICT offers when she used the counting pictures which the pupils had created to develop further teaching materials which could be used in mathematics lessons.

She felt that being involved in the project had supported her professional development in ICT, and had complemented the work the school had undertaken in supporting the teachers in their use of the new computer cluster. In discussing how she felt her skills had changed in using ICT in different areas she said:

"I would say my confidence in using the computers has improved. Although I wouldn't say I'd rate my skills very highly in any of these areas, I feel that now I know how to find the information to do them. And that's a great improvement, because before I think I would have just said, "Oh, I can't do that!", whereas now I don’t feel that I couldn't do it - although I might think I couldn't do it without looking something up or maybe asking someone for help."


The teacher was able to use ICT effectively to support the development of pupils’ counting skills. This was due to her understanding of the important role that counting plays in the way young children learn mathematics. In addition the knowledge of the pupils’ errors and attainment gained through the diagnostic test helped her to plan other specific activities for number sessions. This detailed knowledge of how young children learn to count, and the errors that they commonly make, is an important feature of the teacher’s understanding of mathematics.

The ICT activities were designed to complement other number activities. The counting pictures which the pupils produced were developed further by the teacher to create resources which could be used in mathematics lessons. This had two benefits: it provided a specific purpose and an audience for the ICT work which the pupils could recognise; the teacher was able to make explicit links between activities so that she could develop connections and further their understanding.

Further reading

Maclellan, E. (1997) ‘The Importance of Counting’, and Thompson, I. ‘Developing Young Children’s Counting Skills’, in I. Thompson (1997) Teaching and Learning Early Number, Buckingham: Open University Press.

Fuson, K. and Hall, J. (1983). ‘The Acquisition of Early Number Word Meanings’, in H. Ginsburg The Development of Mathematical Thinking, New York: Academic Press.

The chapter by Effie Maclellan succinctly summarises American research on counting. Ian Thompson’s chapter in the same book also has some specific suggestions for teaching based on this research. An account of some influential research on counting can also be found in the chapter by Fuson and Hall (1983).

The teacher working with her Reception pupils in the school’s computer room

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Ways forward with ICT: Effective pedagogy using ICT for literacy and numeracy in primary schools