Finger Pattern Adding Schemes: Sums Less Than Ten

One of my favorite questions to ask a toddler is, “How old are you?” They will often proudly hold up two, three, or four fingers.  Most of the time these fingers come up all at once. This is their first experience connecting a number word and their fingers and can be a foundation to building a finger pattern scheme. Children can use these finger patterns to solve additive situations. In this post, I want to talk about how children might use their fingers in additive situations where the sum is less than ten. These situations are the first additive situations children experience and can begin to lay a conceptual foundation for counting-on.

One way children use their fingers is that they lift a finger pattern for each addend and then count all their fingers.

Here are the steps they use to solve the problem:

3 + 5  (Pattern-Pattern-Count)

  1. Lift a finger pattern for three on one hand
  2. Lift a finger pattern for five on their other hand
  3. Count all visible fingers.

Here is a video of Shae solving the problem this way.

Their finger patterns help them to create something that they can count. When students use this method, they struggle to solve problems with the number six because the pattern requires the use of both hands. They will lift up their finger pattern for six and then reuse the one finger on the second hand to create the second pattern. So six plus two is seen as seven. Therefore this method only works when each addend is five or less.

Another way children may use their fingers is that they lift a finger pattern, count the second addend and then they count all of the fingers they see. Here are the steps they may use to solve the problem:

6 + 3 (Pattern-Count-Count)

  1. Lift six fingers
  2. Count 1,2,3 while lifting three more fingers
  3. Count all the fingers visible.

You can see Grace using this method in my blog post on January 18

Some children, like Grace, learn sophisticated finger patterns so they have finger patterns for eleven through nineteen and may not need to count for step three above. They may even recognize a finger pattern of three fingers as 13 in some cases.

These adding schemes are important because they lay a foundation for children to begin to work with figurative material. Finger patterns are used to empower children to add and eventually are used to monitor additive situations like 74 + 7. It amazes me what a powerful learning tool a child’s fingers are. When you can interpret their mental material from their behavior, you can present tasks that will provide opportunities for children to construct a foundation for counting-on. Reading Steffe’s research and using it to inform decisions I make working with children, has convinced me that the mathematics of students is a tool that enhances the ability of a teacher to make decisions that can support children’s conceptual understanding. In my next blog post I will look at a way to create perturbation for children using a pattern-pattern-count method, which could lead to the need for them to construct the pattern-count-count method.


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