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Understanding how maths skills and executive functions co-develop concurrently and longitudinally in 3 - to 5-year-old children.


Maths area dispaly in a Nursery classroom 

MATHS TALK AND EARLY MATHS SKILLS: 2016-2019                   

Over 2016 - 2019, we 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 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 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. We replicated links between attention, executive and maths early skills for the children who took part in the study, and learnt about the power of "Maths Talk" in educators. 

You can read about "Maths Talk" findings here, and broader study findings here.

maths gamemaths gamemaths displaymaths display



We 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. Read more here.

Funded by the British Academy, we are also working in partnership with a wonderful South African research team who are looking at the interactions between motor control, executive functions and socio-economic background and more recently links between executive functions and early numeracy for families with very low income in Cape Town. Read more here.


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 and Sylvia Gattas are developing the research questions further through her DPhil here at Oxford and worked / are working as Graduate Research Assistants on this line of work.  

Rebecca Merkley was the lead researcher in the first part of this work, as part of her DPhil here. Rebecca is now part of the project team as a close collaborator and independent researcher at Carleton University, Canada, as was Daniel Ansari, at the Numerical Cognition Lab, University of Western Ontario, Canada, for the first "fact-finding" part of this work. With Rebecca and Daniel, co-Investigators on the first project funded by the Nuffield Foundation were Vicky Murphy (Education, Oxford) and Ann Dowker (Psychology, Oxford) with a team of expert advisors (Kathy Sylva, Keely Cook, Dr Fiona Simmons).

Our new intervention co-development project now welcomes Sylvia Gattas, Rosie O'Connor, as well as Rebecca Merkley (Carleton) and Steven Howard (University of Wollongong, Australia) as co-Investigators. Zach Hawes (OISE, Toronto), Vic Simms (Ulster), Kathy Sylva and Ted Melhuish (Oxford), Emma Blakey (Sheffield) are our team of expert advisors.


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.

Nuffield Foundation project "Fostering resilience by injecting executive challenge into maths" to Gaia and Co-Investigators.

Related to: British Academy project "Understanding barriers and potential of early childhood education in low-income South Africa: Leveraging children's executive functions."