Using Fingers to Build Number Sense

Boy lifting 3 fingersIt has been a lot of fun to get back into the classroom during the last few weeks!  The Early Mathematics research associates have been interviewing students (3- and 4-year-olds) to see how they say the number word sequence, how they count objects, and how they subitize.  These were our initial interviews from which we will select a smaller group of students to follow closely throughout the 2016-2017 school year.  Back at the AIMS Center, we carefully view the recorded videos of these interviews and analyze the students’ actions more deeply.  A number of interesting observations have already come up, most of which could prompt a blog post.  For today, I will choose one.  

What is significant about the use of fingers in mathematics?

If you were to ask a young girl how old she is, she may or may not answer you verbally.  Many children will just hold up fingers (1,2,3…).  Others will say, “This many,” while holding up the amount of fingers that may or may not represent the correct age.  Some will say the number word AND hold up fingers.  A few young children may only say the number word, but the use of fingers is very common.  We are also finding similarities when students are attempting to subitize small numbers.

First, a little background.  Subitizing is defined as “instantly seeing how many” (Clements, 1999).  We quickly (1-2 seconds) show students index cards with varying amounts and arrangements of dots on them and ask, “How many did you see?”  After they tell us what they see, we ask them to “show (us) what you saw” by arranging little round red counting chips.

Dots on Cards

It is interesting to see that many students are able to show the correct amount of fingers (usually only up to 3) and maybe even the right amount of chips, but don’t necessarily use the correct number word.  A lot of the students also seem to show more confidence in their finger patterns matching the subitizing card than either their number word response or counting chips re-creation.  Some even hold up the correct amount of fingers and then count them to find the corresponding number word!

I have been reading some research on the use of finger patterns as a predictor of future mathematics success, but for this post I would just like to put this out there for discussion.  Have you had similar experiences with preschool-age children where finger patterns seem to take precedence over other forms of “number” representation?  What are your thoughts about the significance of the use of fingers in constructing number sense?  Are you like me and still use your fingers for math from time to time?

Don’t be ashamed to admit it in a public forum, even if you are a mathematician.  Everybody’s doing it!

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