Numicon: A teacher's guide

Paul Main

What is Numicon and how does it help children to understand mathematical concepts?

Numicon: A teacher's guide

If you are a primary teacher the chances are that somewhere in your school there are some Numicon teaching resources. For those new to teaching, we are going to give you a bit of background into this mathematical teaching resource. We'll go through a bit of the theory before digging deeper into the practical applications of this multi-sensory approach.

What is Numicon?

Numicon is regarded as a leading approach to teaching maths in primary classrooms. Developed by the Oxford University Press, Numicon shapes are a prevalent and valuable tool used by teachers worldwide to help children develop their maths and numeracy skills (Forder, 2016).

Being a physical resource, each Numicon shape offers an image of how a number looks like. Students start to see the connection between numbers, with each piece containing one hole more than the previous one. It complements children's strong sense of pattern and allows them to understand how each number has a connection with other numbers. This approach has been shown to enable KS1 and KS2 children to develop mathematical concepts.

Why are Multi-Sensory Approaches critical in maths teaching?

Multisensory activities are essential because these activities involve whole-brain learning. Multisensory techniques mostly include concrete objects and visual teaching strategies.  These include methods such as popsicle sticks, unifix cubes, chips and beans. They are especially helpful in teaching particular math concepts/skills as students can both feel and see the characteristics of concrete objects they are using. We talked about the idea of extended cognition in a previous post. This is the idea that children think not only with just their heads but their hands and body too.

Being able to hold a physical representation of something helps children to understand an abstract concept. We use this same idea with Writers Block. These building resources have been shown to make a learning activity more engaging and less theoretical. As children build and make connections with a concrete object, they grasp more difficult concepts. These teaching materials act as a concrete-pictorial-abstract approach that enables children to develop their problem-solving skills. 

Other mathematical manipulative tools for the classroom and home

  • Base 10 apparatus
  • Clocks
  • Counters
  • Cuisenaire rods
  • Dominoes
  • Interlocking cubes
  • Tangram
  • Measuring equipment

What are the positive impacts of Numicon on children's learning?

Numicon Shapes are created to support children to communicate mathematically and sets a solid foundation for future curriculum links. Numicon maths helps learners to reason mathematically, by talking alongside pictorial and concrete representations to elaborate and justify their ideas. This strategy of learning and teaching is called the CPA or Concrete-Pictorial-Abstract teaching.

The proven Concrete - Pictorial - Abstract approach builds a child's knowledge about numbers by introducing numbers in written format in a tangible and concrete way, supporting instructions for a Mastery approach. Hence, a child can make significant connections between numbers and the values these numbers represent from an early age using Numicon. By doing so, Numicon can give a solid foundation that allows children to learn maths with conviction all through their academic years.

A classroom kit of numicon
A typical Numicon set

Physical resources such as multicolour Numicon Shapes are an integral part of Numicon. There are holes in the Numicon Shapes that show the numbers 1 to 10. When these are placed in a sequence, as shown in the picture below, learners can easily find connections between numbers, such as ‘one less’ or ‘one more.

Numicon shapes placed in order
Simple colour-coded numicon shapes

Numicon Activities for KS1 Children

Numicon in key stage 1 provides a most useful way to teach math to children studying in KS1 (Lowndes, 2014).

  1. Numicon number bonds to 10

Children in key stage 1 can explore several ways to add numbers to make 10 with the most effective Activity Sheet for 'Making 10 Using Numicon Shapes'. They must get the concrete Numicon Shapes or the printable and handy Numicon Shape Cut-Outs. Students use Numicon Shapes for finding the missing number and complete a mathematical statement with the answer 10.

Numicon pieces laid out
Numicon shapes for making ten
  1. Using a Numicon number line

Teachers can display a number line to 20 in a learning space or classroom. Number lines provide a remarkable visual representation of a variety of numbers placed in a horizontal line. These are served as a great resource to help younger pupils with basic calculation skills such as counting and place value. Number lines are available in the form of worksheets, flashcards and display posters.

Numicon number line
A typical number line

Numicon Activities for KS2 Children

Numicon in Key Stage 2 includes a Mastery Manipulatives Table Pack which contains 1-100cm Number Rod Track, Number Rods - Small Set, 10 Numicon Ten Shapes, Box of 80 Numicon Shapes, Double-sided Baseboard Laminates (pack of 3) and Extra Numicon 1-shapes. This kit holds necessary manipulatives to help mastery teaching. One pack can be used for a group of six children working with each other. Numicon in Key Stage 2 allows children to reason, and represent and explore maths ideas in multiple ways using imagery and concrete objects (Scerri, 2015).

Classroom numicon number line
Visualising numbers

Using a Numicon home kit

Numicon at home can help children to better understand maths, both prior to starting primary school and when they are at school. Numicon at home kits provide family-friendly resources and activities that are created to help children understand the relationship between numbers.

Numicon resources at home provide a perfect way to understand the basic concepts of maths children will be studying in the classroom. Through the mathematical language and multi-sensory activities of Numicon, children will begin to develop the skills and understanding that will increase their knowledge about numbers.

An at Home Kit is created for the parents to support children to do maths using a sequence of easy to play and fun activities to encourage learning about basic concepts of maths. At home kit is not suggested to be used for children under 36 months.

  • What's in a Numicon Set?

Numicon set holds 1x Numicon Baseboard, 3x Numicon Threading Laces, 1x Zig Zag Book Number Line, 1x Numicon Feely Bag, 52x Numicon Coloured Pegs, 1x Numicon 0-10 Numeral Cards, 1x Numicon Baseboard Picture Overlays, 1x First Steps with Numicon at Home Activity Book and 32x Numicon shapes.

Numicon 7

Teachers can help children calculating and counting with the Numicon 7 shape. It can be combined with other Numicon number illustrations for activities, posters and much more.

Ten-shape pattern

Through Numicon ten-shape pattern, children can explore a number of different ways to add numbers to make ten. Children can use printable Numicon Shape Cut-Outs or concrete Numicon Shapes. Numicon ten-shape pattern is also useful for place value activities.

Six-shape pattern

Numicon six-shape pattern has holes in it that can be broken apart or joined together to demonstrate shapes or numbers. Teachers can use numicon 6 illustrations in their classroom using software, and they can create their unique classroom resources. To support children’s learning, numicon 6 can be used in the form of prompt cards, posters, worksheets and illustration.

Shapes

Numicon shapes are a tested and approved teaching tool used by teachers all across the world. Numicon shapes work by supporting children in creating a long term understanding of the connection of numbers with the physical quantity that various numbers represent. For instance, when children see Numicon Shapes in order, they can easily know that '6' is double '3' and '5' is one more than '4', and so on. Considering numbers as tangible and concrete objects can make it easier for the children to understand important concepts, such as addition, subtraction, number order, and place value (Atkinson, 2015).

Numicon at home can help children to better understand maths, both prior to starting primary school and when they are at school. Numicon at home kits provide family-friendly resources and activities that are created to help children understand the relationship between numbers.

Numicon resources at home provide a perfect way to understand the basic concepts of maths children will be studying in the classroom. Through the mathematical language and multi-sensory activities of Numicon, children will begin to develop the skills and understanding that will increase their knowledge about numbers.

Guide for parents

Numicon is an effective way to teach maths that helps children to see the relationship between numbers. As a creation of Oxford University Press, Numicon helps children as they are taught early maths skills in primary school and nursery. It involves a multi-sensory approach to learn. Hence, children can learn by both feeling and seeing (extended cognition).

Physical resources such as the multicolour Numicon Shapes are an integral part of Numicon. The holes in the Numicon Shapes represent the numbers from 1 to 10. When these are arranged in a sequence, as shown in the picture below, children can easily view the relationship between numbers, such as ‘one less’ or ‘one more.’ There are numerous ways parents can guide their children to learn maths with Numicon at home. If a child’s school is using Numicon, they can arrange workshops to guide parents on how to use Numicon to teach maths at home. Parents can also ask their child’s teacher if they have any queries.

You can find out more about Writers Block and other concrete learning concepts on the Structural Learning Maths page.

An alternative to Numicon?

The block building approach we have been developing has been helping children develop number concepts in primary schools across England. We know that using structured imagery using these plastic shapes significantly boosts maths skills. Our early user group begun by identifying the different maths concepts the blocks could be used to model. It became apparent very quickly that the colours were enabling children to develop a sense of pattern. The game like quality of using the blocks transformed what were quite challenging educational activities into fun child-led tasks. Primary school children can use the coloured shapes for a range of different activities including:

1) Repeating patterns

2) Ratios

3) Developing mutliplication vocabulary

4) Fractions

5) Rounding numbers

6) Place value

7) Number towers

Brick like shapes for developing mathematical skills
Brick like shapes for developing mathematical skills

Shape arrangements being used as a maths resource
Shape arrangements being used as a maths resource

References

  • Atkinson, R. (2015). The Numicon Intervention Programme. Oxford University Press.
  • Forder, K. (2016). A study to evaluate the impact of a Numicon-based intervention on the numeracy attainment and attitude towards numeracy of children in lower Key Stage 2 identified as experiencing difficulties in mathematics (Doctoral dissertation, University of Nottingham).
  • Lowndes, S., D'Angelo, S., Jeffrey, A., & Gibbs, E. (2014). Numicon Geometry, Measurement and Statistics: Explorer Progress Book. Oxford University Press.
  • Scerri, D. (2015). The use of Numicon® as a resource for learning addition and subtraction in early childhood education (Bachelor's thesis, University of Malta).

No time to read? FAQ for busy teachers

  • What is the Numicon shape?

Children can visualize numbers by looking at Numicon shapes.

  • What are the benefits of using Numicon?

When children manipulate something physical, not just paper and pencil, they gain confidence and a better understanding, which leads to higher achievement: over 90% of teachers agree that Numicon has a positive effect on students' learning.

  • What are the benefits in EYFS?

In Reception, children may use the pieces to help them develop an understanding of shape.

  • What can children do with Numicon?

Using Numicon boards, children can create different shapes and patterns. As they become more familiar with the pieces, they'll start to call them by their number name.

  • What are the concepts of Numicon?

Children can also learn geometric concepts, symmetry, and sharing through Numicon: the pieces are all weighted the same way, such that a 10-piece weighs the same as two five-pieces, or a six- and four-piece combination.

 

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