During early years development, children begin to learn maths ideas and try to internalise relationships between these ideas with the real world. Studies show that purposely teaching and exposing young children to simple maths-related vocabulary, such as ‘more’, ‘less’, ‘before’ and ‘after’, maximises their ability to learn basic maths skills.

Language input is important for everybody’s representation of number, and how maths works, such as counting, ordering and calculating. It is difficult to ask a child to compare quantities if they do not know what ‘more’ or ‘fewer’ means. If we are not getting it in our languague, we are not going to just come up with it on our own.

For instance, if they can understand ‘before’ and ‘after’, they are more likely to know, or be able to understand, what number comes after three. When children learn this language in a maths context, it acts as a springboard to learn about other maths concepts.

Some tips to enhance young children’s maths learning using the language of maths:

  • Introduce maths vocabulary to children as they explore maths ideas with concrete objects. Do not try to make them memorise vocabulary in a vacuum.
  • Teach maths vocabulary as naturally as you would introduce the names of different foods, animals or toys.
  • Play activities in a natural way. The more they begin to use maths vocabulary correctly, the more they will increase their understanding of the words and maths ideas.
  • Teach maths vocabulary in everyday situtations. For example, ‘please place one set of cutlery’ when setting the table’, ‘put five apples in total in the cart’ during grocery shopping, ‘we are third in line’ when queuing for a bus, saying ‘today is Tuesday and Wednesday is after Tuesday’.
  • Provide opportunities for young children to use new maths terms by scheduling time for them to talk about their experiences after they have had hands-on maths activities.
  • Ask children specific questions. For example, ‘How do we know there are more girls than boys?’ or ‘Is the bird above or below the tree?’
  • It is not necessary to have direct instruction in counting, number naming or related maths skills, but to be clear and engaging.


Maths vocabulary to use with young children:

  • Sorting – sort, classify, order, sequence, shortest to longest, biggest to smallest
  • Number and number operations – sets, groups, total, altogether, amount, how many, less, less than, few, fewer than, more, more than, greater, greater than, most, least, same, the same as, equal, different from, guess, estimate, ones, tens, taking away, how many more?, whole, half, first, last, pairs, odd, even
  • Geometry – names of pattern blocks (shapes): hexagon, square, triangle, circle, diamond, point, round, flat, curve, line, corner, edge, face, cube, oval, straight, direction
  • Measurement – measure, taller than, shorter than, wider than, narrower than, length, volume, weight, area, time, hour, minute, second, distance, increase, decrease, heavier, lighter
  • Data analysis– graph, tally, data, more than, fewer than, always, sometimes, never, compare
  • Calendar – day, yesterday, tomorrow, week, month, year, date, Autumn, Winter, Spring, Summer, seasons, day, night, morning, afternoon, before, after
  • Money – cents, dollar, cash, bank, save
  • Position words – near, far, beside, between, inside, outside, above, below, in front, behind, over, under, top, bottom, left, right, closer, further


Children’s picture books that reinforce maths vocabulary:

  • Mouse Shapes by Ellen Stoll Walsh
  • Gray Rabbit’s Odd One Out by Alan Baker
  • Many is How Many? by Illa Podendorf
  • Albert is Not Scared by Eleanor May
  • Just Enough Carrots by Stuart J. Murphy
  • Rosie’s Walk by Pat Hutchins
  • Albert’s Bigger than Big Idea by Eleanor May
  • Little White Rabbit by Kevin Henkes