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How does attention matter to developing numeracy?

The Cognitive and Educational Foundations of Preschool Maths:(not) as easy as 1, 2, 3.

Maths area dispaly in a Nursery classroom 

This project is looking at how children learn early numeracy skills. This project will help us to investigate the development of numeracy in preschool and the contributions of educational and cognitive factors. We hope that our findings will allow us identify methods for ways of improving nursery provision so that children are best prepared for numeracy learning when they start formal education.

This project began (in 2011-2014) by focusing on understanding why attention and executive functions in preschoolers relate to developing number cognition. We are now (2016-2019) pursuing further longitudinal and mechanistic questions about why and how attention and executive functions matter to early numeracy. We are using a number of complementary approaches to investigating this question: studying concurrent and longitudinal relationships, training and experimental manipulations.


Our current study is half way through the experimental phase. The team is working with settings from across Oxfordshire, including charity preschools, school based settings, and work place nurseries.


In line with our longitudinal analysis, we have now collected activity data on a range of tests at two time points (in the early Spring and the Summer of 2017). These are all age appropriate ‘game’ based tasks to measure attention skills and mathematical knowledge. Concurrently, we have gained an insight into environment of each setting through interviews, observations, and questionnaires. We have also conducted cognitive and educational tests, to allow us to compare the children to age-specific national averages. We will then use this information to see if some of the effects we see in their mathematical development is linked to their language, general skills or the other cognitive functions we are measuring.

maths gamemaths gamemaths displaymaths display

Goals for the future


With around 100 children taking part this year (2016-17) we hope to double the number of participants in the next academic year of the study.

We will be revisiting the children who are starting Reception in September to complete the final stage of the longitudinal data collection for this year’s cohort. This will allow us to see the development in maths and cognitive abilities over a greater period of time.


We are collaborating with John Moores University, Liverpool, to share procedures and data in order to create a larger, universal data-pool. We are also working in partnership with a South African research team who are looking at the interactions between motor control, executive functions and socio-economic background.

 Lead Researchers

Lead researchers, working with Prof. Gaia Scerif on the Nuffield project, are Emma Dove and Megan Von Spreckelsen. Annelot de Rechteren van Hemert is developing the project further through her DPhil here at Oxford after working as a Graduate Research Assistant.  


Rebecca Merkley was the lead researcher in the first part of this work, as part of her DPhil here. Rebecca is now a close collaborator, and postdoctoral researcher with Daniel Ansari, at the Numerical Cognition Lab, University of Western Ontario, Canada.


With Rebecca and Daniel, co-Investigators on the ongoing project funded by the Nuffield Foundation (see below) are Prof Vicky Murphy (Education, Oxford) and Dr Ann Dowker (Psychology, Oxford) with a team of expert advisors (Prof Kathy Sylva, Keely Cook).

 Funded by

Clarendon Fund & Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada grants to Rebecca.

Nuffield Foundation project "Cognitive and Educational Foundations of Preschool Mathematics: (not) as easy as 1,2,3" to Gaia and Co-investigators.