Counters to Numerals: The Big Jump

blanks11_16I have often heard from teachers the following, “My students can do the problems with counters, but when I take the counters away, they can’t do the problems anymore.” I have seen many math textbooks that introduce addition equations with counters in early grades and after a few times using the counters, the students are asked to do the problems with the numbers only and no counters. Even if several days of using counters is part of the sequence of instruction, there still comes a time when the teacher is instructed to put the counters away and students are left to figure out the problems with numerals alone. So why do so many students struggle at this point?

The research we have been looking at suggests a reason for this. In between using the counters and only using the numerals, there is a time that students need to imagine using the counters. The gap between the manipulative and the abstract symbol is simply too great for students to traverse in a solo leap. Instead they need time to first think about what the counters mean and then to have time to do problems in which they imagine using the counters. So what does that look like? How do we know they have thought about the counters enough? How do we know they have imagined the counters enough? All of these questions are answered by research that we at the AIMS Center are coming to understand and that will be part of upcoming blogs.

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2 Responses to Counters to Numerals: The Big Jump

  1. Great question! The research I referenced does not have students doing touch math, but here are a few thoughts based on what is in the research and related.

    If the numerals students are using have the touch points for touch math, then they would be like a counter. When the numerals are presented without the touch points, the students would have to remember them to count them like students do with finger patterns or spatial patterns. One difference would be that because the pattern that is temporarily used instead of the counters is associated with the numeral, how would you get students to use the pattern less? In other words, how would you get them to not count when they see the numerals using the touch points?

    I think if we could resolve that, then they might be another kind of pattern that is used to help transition students from counters to numerals.

  2. As I read this blog and think back at my time as a second grade teacher, I could make a connection to this. I was also one of the teachers that had students that were able to solve problems using counters, but when taken away, the students struggled to complete those problems. I can see the transition into imaginary counters as the possible missing link. I also wonder if having the students transition into touch math after counters would be a benefit or a hinder to jumping to numerals?

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