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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 investigates how children learn early numeracy skills. Most recently funded by the Nuffield Foundation, this project has been an exciting collaboration between psychologists, education experts, teachers and preschool educators. In the United Kingdom, few studies have investigated multiple complementary contributions of educational and cognitive factors to preschool numeracy.

This project began (in 2011-2014) by focusing on understanding why attention and executive functions in preschoolers relate to developing number cognition. Building on that work, in 2016-2019 we pursued further longitudinal and mechanistic questions about why and how attention and executive functions matter to early numeracy. We used a number of complementary approaches to investigating this question: studying concurrent and longitudinal relationships across the many skills children bring to the task of learning to be numerate, but also qualitative investigations of their preschool environment.

You can read about our findings in more detail in the public report we wrote for the Nuffield Foundation, uploaded here.

We hope, building on our findings, we will now be better able to work in partnership with parents and preschool educators, so that children are best prepared for numeracy learning when they start formal education.

In Summary                      

Our study has just concluded: we have now visited 231 preschoolers, and followed 170 preschoolers twice, to study their improving maths skills before entering school. Our wonderful team of researchers worked with settings from across Oxfordshire, including charity preschools, school based settings, and work place nurseries.

In line with our longitudinal analysis plan (pre-registered on Open Science Framework), we have collected and analysed data on a range of tests at two time points (in the early Spring and the Summer of 2017, and again in 2018). These were all age appropriate ‘game’ based tasks to measure attention skills and mathematical knowledge.

At the same time, we have gained an insight into the maths environment of our children in 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 children's mathematical development is linked to their language, general skills or the attention / executive and prior maths skills.

maths gamemaths gamemaths displaymaths display



We also collaborated with Dr Fiona Simmons and her team at John Moores University, Liverpool, to share procedures and data in order to create a larger data-set and test whether our conclusions converge across two rather large but different samples. 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, were Emma Dove, Megan Von Spreckelsen and Ilse Coolen. Annelot de Rechteren van Hemert is developing the project further through her DPhil here at Oxford after working as a Graduate Research Assistant on this project.  


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


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

 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.