No! No! No! No! Don’t Let your Child Finger Count!

MATHS INSIDERS blog (1)

Yes there are calculation methods which use the fingers to work out calculations at super fast speed, which is great if you’re going to train your child to do this;

But if you’re not, don’t let your child finger count

Here are my 4 reasons why you should wean your child from using their fingers;

1 Finger counting is just a visual starter

Finger counting is an introductory skill, in order for children to have a visual understanding of number facts, not the final method to be used for calculations. According to mathematical development research, ” children generally move from the less-efficient strategies using their fingers, to the more efficient strategies without finger use (Geary, Hoard, Nugent, & Byrd-Craven, 2007).”

2 Finger counting discourages memorisation of maths facts

Many things in life will need to be memorised in the future by your child, finger counting closes their mind to this essential skill. According to mental maths research, “When  Chinese children could not retrieve an addition fact directly from memory, they tended to count verbally, whereas the American children tended to count on their fingers or guess.” The Chinese children scored better in addition facts tests.

3 Finger counting slows down the whole calculation process.

Further adult numeracy research “noted that those who consistently relied on finger-counting were unable to increase their speed and/or were unable to complete of the problems within the time constraints.” Fast recall of of arithmetic facts are essential for questions from “There are 8 eggs in a basket and 3 are taken out. How many are left?” through to “Solve 7x + 3 = 52” and beyond.

4 Finger counting puts them at a disadvantage in the class

Leaving your child to finger count while her classmates move ahead because they have memorised the arithmetic facts is just not fair.

 

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Photo by Jason Rogers Flickr Creative Commons

So what’s the finger counting remedy?

  • Use other physical objects when introducing the concept of counting and adding on.  I’m a great fan of using chocolate chips or raisins as a tasty prop when practicing preschool number facts.
  • For memorisation, try starting from the basics, memorising +1’s first, then +2’s , then +3’s. I talk in more detail in Who Else Wants Their Child to be Lightening Fast at Mental Maths
  • For audio learners, listen to  number facts on a CD or online
  • Visual learners, can use printed or online flashcards to aid memorisation.

Disagree with me?

Tell me in the comments!

Caroline Mukisa
About The Author: Caroline Mukisa is the founder of Maths Insider. A Cambridge University educated math teacher, she's been involved in math education for over 20 years as a teacher, tutor, Kumon instructor, Thinkster Math instructor and math ed blogger. She is the author of the insanely helpful ebook "The Ultimate Kumon Review" and insanely useful website "31 Days to Faster Times Tables" You can follow her math tips on Facebook and follow her on Twitter @mathsinsider

Please note: I reserve the right to delete comments that are offensive or off-topic.

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33 thoughts on “No! No! No! No! Don’t Let your Child Finger Count!

    • Hope the links help! I read that for some children, just consistently insisting that they don’t finger count can get them to stop within a few months. Trying this as well as other strategies should help. Do report back to us!

  1. I was having a conversation about learning math facts from memory with my 6 yr old today. We are memorizing the addition facts that she learned last year this summer. With an undergrad degree in high school mathematics, I know what a disadvantage HSers who don’t know their math facts have.

    We’ll have a renewed motivation after I read this post:)

  2. Fingers are good for thinking about numbers, though. Being able to show a number with your fingers without counting helps you relate numbers to 5 and 10–important benchmarks.

    • That’s true! However the medium to long term aim should still be to have encountered and manipulated the number facts enough times that they are committed to memory.

  3. I disagree with you. Try these articles for size:

    Gracia-Bafalluy, M. & Noel, M. (2008). Does finger training increase young children’s numerical performance? Cortex 44, p368-75

    Kaufmann, L. (2008). Dyscalculia: neuroscience and education. Educational Research n50 (2), p163-75

  4. I see your point, but I’m not a huge fan of memorization. I’d rather that it occur naturally, rather than with flashcards or songs or whatever. (Though, for some kids, those tools are exactly what’s needed. Never say never in education, I say!)

    But I do agree that kids who know their tens addition facts are able to progress much more quickly through basic arithmetic. And I have a really fun game that I’ve used with kids as young as 5. It’s basically go-fish but instead of asking for a match to a card you have, you ask for a card that when added to a card you have gives 10. So if you have a 4, you ask for a 6. And if you have an Ace, you ask for a 9.

    You can play this game with a modified deck of cards, removing all face cards and using Aces as 1s. Or you can create a deck of cards with numerals and dots in squares to help visual learners find the answers quickly.

    When kids play this game over and over, they learn the facts more quickly. And it’s a little more fun than flashcards.

    Laura

    • Thanks for your comment Laura!
      I like your modified “Go Fish” game, I’ll try that one with my nearly 5 year old.Thanks for sharing!
      I think there are different ways of encouraging memorization, card games being more fun than flashcards and songs (although some kids do like those You Tube multiplication raps!) I also think anything that you do repeatedly is eventually memorized (e.g. we learning to drive by repeating each action during our driving lessons)

  5. You know I love you, Caroline, but you’re way off on this one.

    I used to tell my students, “Barring a horrible accident, you’ll always have your fingers. So use them.”

    Then I would wonder out loud if they would give you a 10% discount on a manicure if you lost a finger.

  6. I was taught a system of finger counting called Fingermath when I was about six, which allows you to count up to 99 using 2 hands. There is a book out there with the title “Fingermath” that explains the system. It really helped me develop my arithmetic and general feeling for number. The system worked quickly, so much so that I could use it to add and subtract very quickly with it. Rather than preventing me from memorising number facts, it helped me to visualise those number facts – I could work out number bonds which other children relying on mental arithmetic alone couldn’t, and therefore I internalised these much quicker. It also helped me see how numbers could be broken down and manipulated (e.g. 7 is also 5+2) through their representation on my fingers.

    I even use the system now I am an adult. Being able to bolster the short term memory’s capacity by recording any double digit number on your hands is a huge boost to mental arithmetic. When doing mental arithmetic I sometimes find that as well as doing the sum in my head I am also doing it on my fingers, so I can double check my answers against each other.

    I went on to study mathematics at A-level and did a science degree with a lot of statistics in it at university, so this method of finger counting clearly didn’t hold me back.

  7. There is neurological evidence showing a link between the digit control system and math. Turn one off, it inhibits the other.

    You just don’t undestand the sub-systems and how learning progresses.

  8. Any universal truth is faulty, at least occasionally. Same applies to finger counting. Finger-counting kids may be temporarily behind those who memorized number facts; they may be ahead of those who forgot some number facts. Now, to look at your post thesis-by-thesis:

    Finger-counting is just a visual starter. What’s wrong with that? You have to learn walking before you start running.

    Finger-Counting discourages memorization of math facts. First, this is questionable – the more kids count, the more they remember. If they are comfortable with finger-counting so be it. They’ll wean sooner or later.

    Finger-counting slows down the calculation process. Not always, and only assuming you can do this otherwise and faster at that.

    The last one was answered first.

  9. I absolutely disagree. No, it does not sacrifice the long-term computational abilities needed for problem solving. Using any manipluative, fingers, blocks, or an abacus, is still using visual manipulatives.

    We learn by being able to relate, compare, and repeat. With that said, evenatual memorizaiton comes from repeating the task or solution. Fingers are irrelevant. If you are using chocolate chips, you are still using fingers!

    Consequently, the focus should not be on the memorization but rather the number sense and theory. Let’s not take it as far as set theory, but some students may benefit better from this logical approach and respond well to the idea of inverse and comutative properties.

    However, accomplished number sense over math fact memorization should always be the goal.

    While here, I absolutely detest the focus towards speed and memory over accuracy. Fly me to the moon – calculate fast and I might end up in Mars!

  10. This post has certainly stirred up some strong emotion.

    Caroline, I am with you on this, and I think for the same reasons. I recently wrote on this topic on my blog, which is why your title caught my eye. I saw Year 5 students who were achieving very little in their lesson on area of a rectangle, for one really obvious reason: not only did they not know basic multiplication facts, when working out longer multiplication they used fingers to count up additions like “8+4”.

    There is no way I can support the idea that counting somehow works as a method towards mastery of mathematics, unless it is part of a grander approach to developing mathematical thinking. @Nic’s system sounds like it fits this description.

    The other point I’d make here is that “memorisation” has got a heap of bad press over several decades, as one form of “rote learning”. But in the domain of mathematics, having memorised basic facts, however you got there, is essential, no question. Kids who haven’t memorised the facts cannot function in maths, as I observed.

  11. I think the issue is not ‘finger counting’ per se, but counting in general. Kids that can’t easily retrieve number facts are obviously going to have problems the further they get in mathematics.

    However, finger counting as a counting method is something I would highly recommend. It allows you to keep track of how far you’ve counted physically, and what number you are up to mentally. I find this generally leads to more accurate results, and I still often use my fingers to ‘keep track’ when I need to count.

  12. I have to disagree with you, too. I want to celebrate any way that students are really thinking mathematically (instead of trying to memorize, or guessing).

    You called it weaning in your post, and that’s a good analogy. You wouldn’t want a 10-year-old still nursing, but it’s not healthy to wean kids too soon, and if there’s a healthy relationship and the mom enjoys the nursing, the kids are most likely to wean themselves.

    Instead of advising “Don’t let your kids …”, I’d say that finger counting is a sign that they’re thinking (good thing) and that they might also benefit from some thinking tools to help them, like cuisenaire rods, an abacus, and unit blocks (along with ten rods, hundred flats, and thousand blocks).

  13. None of us would be impressed with a math teacher who does not know their multiplication facts or addition facts at lightning speed. The teacher most likely has memorized these facts. This same teacher probably used his or her fingers when they were younger and eventually stopped needing them as the number facts stuck in their head (memorized). The kids who are using their fingers at an older age may not be doing enough work on math so the information isn’t sticking. If you throw enough mud at a wall, some of it will stick. If you throw more, then more will stick. The trick is to not stop throwing the mud (math).

  14. my son doesn’t use his fingers, he just seems to look at the numbers and work out..by (he says) separating them into tens and units sections(he just turned 4). I on the other hand use my fingers sometimes. I dont need to be a human computer, i think that it is better to lead a happy life then dedicate your life to numbers. The teacher said they would work for 10 hours a day. I figure 3 hours a day for math is enough.

  15. If you want students to have mastery of basic facts look to Asia. I teach my students Chisenbop (Korean Fingermath). It is easy to learn and leads to the correct answers being memorized. Not just addition but also all the multiplication facts. I think the author of this article would encourage the use of fingermath if they knew how to do Korean Chisenbop Fingermath.
    Fingermath builds on the power of ten and the power of five. Fingermath also fits really well with brain research and the importance of movement.

    Scroll back and read Nic’s post on October 5, 2011.
    Nic was taught Chisenbop Korean Fingermath.

  16. Not agreeing with this. Some kids learn differently and have a very hard time memorizing math facts which puts them further behind especially with kids that have dyscalculia. Not every method works for every child. With dyscalculia you can throw mud all you want it can cause a child to become extremely frustrated trying to memorize facts by drilling flash cards into them constantly to the point they want to give up. Then they get even further behind.

  17. Agree in most cases. Sure, there will always be that kid who needs to stay with finger counting and the like for a while longer, but the majority of kids ought to eventually move past it, and sooner rather than later.

    I’m not necessarily saying memorizing math facts and nothing else is the answer, but learning other, quicker strategies is a boon to students. I teach 2nd grade, and I have some very intelligent kiddos who are starting to fall behind because of their attachment to counting. They ignore all the other strategies we discuss, saying they’ll just finger count or make tally marks.

    Doesn’t work when you start working with huge numbers.

  18. I have worked in the public school system, the Montessori system and currently I am homeschooling. I am a CPA and have my Masters in Accounting. I don’t necessarily disagree with you however, I do believe all children learn differently. My 13 year old son has been doing mental math since age three. My seven year old granddaughter was called down in class for using her fingers. She is struggling with math. I told her that her fingers will always be with her to help her, just don’t get caught again. I will teach her how to understand math. I struggled in math. I probably still would if I didn’t have my 10 key. I believe you have to understand math to conquer it, not necessarily memorize it. My son has problems with Reading. We all have our Achilles Heel. I enjoyed your post.

  19. I realize this is an old thread but it was the first to pop up on google when I searched, “what age do kids stop using their fingers to count”
    My son is 12.5 and uses his fingers to count, he has been tested at school, and has a “calculation learning disability”. He also tested for having issues w/retention, slow processing, and reading comprehension difficulty, all stimming imo from his adhd.
    He has struggled w/math since the very beginning, he also has adhd.
    Our schools “solution” for my son’s disability (which I think is actually dyscalculia), is to give him a calculator, and until recently no other accommodations or remediations have been made. Because of an ARD meeting he is still in a regular math class but he will be given more time to learn the subject matter, and taught at a slower speed. But he still has to go to tutoring for all of his subjects that offer tutoring, which equates to going to tutoring at least three times a week.
    My son struggles w/basic arithmetic, and Im at a loss as to what’s the best way to help him.
    Im not sure what the answer is, I did recently buy the “Dyscalculia Tool Kit”, but I havent actually taught him anything from it yet. It’s hard to focus on it when he’s got his current math class to study for plus everything else.

    I found a law (we live in Texas) that states that the school is required to actually test kids for dyslexia and dyscalculia and not just “academic skills”. The Special Ed coordinator said that even if he was tested for dyscalculia that the recommendations would be the same, insinuating that testing him for it would be redundant.

    I was wondering if you had any suggestions?

    Thanks!