Counting with the Alphabet

It should be no surprise that, after working at AIMS for nearly two years, my co-workers still have the ability to inspire deeper learning in me. One of the things that the research and working with children have taught me is that their counting is very ordinal rather than cardinal at the beginning of their experiences with number and counting. David Pearce (“The Guy With All The Questions”) began to dive deep into the meaning of this as well as it’s implications. This thinking sparked many conversations and led Jason Chamberlain (“The Ideas Guy”) to take me through an experience that let me feel how kids might feel.

As we were processing ideas for a summer session with teachers, Jason decided to use me as a guinea pig for counting with the alphabet. He had me “count” out two different sets of blocks, and I had found there were “h” blocks in one pile and “g” blocks in the other. Since the alphabet is ordered but has no cardinality attached to it, I found it challenging to figure out “how many” blocks there were altogether. I realized that to find out where I would end up in the alphabet if I continued to count from “h”, I needed to know how many more to count. I started by using my fingers to find out how many letters there were in the alphabet from “a” to “g”. I, an adult, was using my fingers to establish the amount and then used that number of fingers to count on past “h”.  Jason then told me I couldn’t use my fingers anymore and gave me a new problem. I noticed I began to try to create a spatial pattern that I could use to help me track. These are the same things that the research has taught me are valuable tools for children as they begin to learn about number.

I knew this idea before counting with the alphabet, but this experience made it come alive for me. When a number does not yet contain a value in a child’s understanding, it is similar to how it feels for an adult to try to add with the alphabet. Try it. See what you end up having to do. Think about why “h” doesn’t have the same meaning for you as the number 6 even though they are both the sixth element of a sequence that we all know. Lastly, what do you think this means for children if they have not yet constructed the idea that 6 is a quantity? How might that affect their actions and understanding?

Disclaimer: My colleagues David Pearce and Jason Chamberlain possess many other notable qualities. My nicknames merely reflect a couple of ways that they have been instrumental to my growth here at the center.

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