Using Numicon in teaching maths to children with Down’s syndrome

By Johanna Aiyathurai – CEO, Learn and Thrive

Child counting with Numicon
Child counting with Numicon

Learn and Thrive is a charity dedicated to providing online tools to empower the Down’s syndrome community to smash through society-created barriers and live their best life! One of our main projects is Teach Me Too – a free online library of short educational videos and learning resources, designed for children with Down’s syndrome. It is developed by expert teachers and speech and language therapists, using an evidence-based approach to learning. We’re delighted to be working with the Numicon team at Oxford University Press as part of this project.

What is the learning profile of children with Down’s syndrome?

Historically, many educators have approached teaching our children and young people (CYP) with Down’s syndrome in a similar way to those with global learning delay, or more generic learning difficulties. In fact, there is clear and increasing evidence that CYP with Down’s syndrome have a profile of relative strengths and weaknesses that we must consider when choosing teaching strategies. The International Guidelines for the Education of Learners with Down Syndrome [1] gives a full account of this profile and guidance on inclusive education.

The learning profile can include (but is not limited to):

  • Delays in speech and language development. This often leads to educators underestimating the cognitive abilities of CYP.
  • Difficulties with gross and fine motor skills. This can make manipulating small items, mark making, and writing tricky.
  • Working memory and auditory processing can have significant impact on listening skills – our CYP can find learning from listening very challenging.
  • Strengths in visual processing and visual memory – our CYP find learning through seeing and doing much more accessible and successful.
  • Good social understanding means our CYP often enjoy learning through social interaction with others.
  • Use of gesture is a strength. Our CYP often show understanding by pointing or using other non-verbal means.

Why does Numicon work for the learning profile of children with Down’s syndrome?

  • Numicon’s physical shapes and structure makes it easier for CYP to manipulate, move and interact with numbers compared to other maths resources. Numicon allows us to use a multi-sensory approach and helps address any difficulties with motor skills. 

  • If you struggle with your working memory or auditory processing, then there is nothing better than having the physical representation right in front of you. Allowing you to use your working memory and cognitive processes to deal with the concepts and calculations without the pressure of remembering what came before.

  • Visual learning is a relative strength for our CYP, so being able to physically fit together Numicon shapes supports them in ‘seeing’ their calculations, and once they have a solid understanding of combining the shapes, they can literally turn the ‘doing’ into a cognitive process to support their learning. They can start to think about the shapes and how they come together to make patterns to support and internalise their actions. For example, when working on basic number bonds, the child starts off copying and combining Numicon shapes and moves on to seeing the combination in their head and guiding their thinking.

  • The Numicon ‘feely bag’ supports the CYP’s tactile learning and further supports these visual impressions. It also allows educators to harness social understanding and build social skills by making learning interactive within groups with peers and adults.

  • It’s fun! The capacity for Numicon to be used within games, groups and to support formal learning means you can take maths with you everywhere. Whether you are playing in the sand tray (digging for Numicon numbers to make a number line) or finding out which object weighs more. Numicon can be the constant that turns abstract into concrete.

  • Poor communication can often lead to educators underestimating learners. Numicon gives the CYP a way of answering a question that doesn’t rely on the often-exhausting skill of verbal communication. Just because they can’t say it, doesn’t mean they don’t know. Using Numicon, they can ‘show you’ what they know.

These are just some of the benefits and the reason we are proud to partner with Numicon in our early years numeracy package, which is totally FREE and can be accessed now.


  1. Faragher, R., Robertson, P., & Bird, G. (2020). International guidelines for the education of learners with Down syndrome. Teddington, UK: DSi
  2. Ewan C, Mair C. Wiltshire Pilot Project – Numicon (March-July 2001). Down Syndrome News and Update. 2002; 2(1): 12-14. doi:10.3104/practice/159
  3. Wing, T, and Tacon, R. (2007) Teaching number skills and concepts with Numicon materials. Down Syndrome Research and Practice, 12(1), 22-26. doi:10.3104/practice.2018