What's so hard about learning to count?
Why is counting important?
Counting is the basis for many different math concepts, including computation, place value, estimation, and understanding fractions and decimals. Developing strong counting skills will build a solid foundation for mastering concepts in the later grades.
Why is counting so tricky?
Counting is not as simple as it seems. At first, children memorize the counting words in a rote fashion, reciting, “One, two, three, four...” However, it’s not until they can apply this knowledge and count the number of objects in a set that they’ve demonstrated a true understanding of counting. Making the leap from rote memorization of the counting words to the ability to count the number of objects involves the coordination of 5 different principles:
1) one-to-one correspondence- children must understand that each unique object is only given one counting word. One object = one word. Children who don’t understand one-to-one correspondence might make the following mistake:
2) stable ordering principle- you must recite the counting words in order. “One, two, three, four, etc.” Children who haven’t mastered the stable ordering principle might make the following mistake:
3) cardinal principle- the last number in the set represents the total number of objects in the set. Children who don’t understand the cardinal principle will have difficulty grasping that the number 5 means there are 5 total pencils.
4) abstraction principle- many different things are countable, not just physical objects. For example, you can count how many ideas you have, the number of freckles on your face, or the number of times you hear the phone ring.
5) order-irrelevance principle- you don’t need to begin counting at the start of the row, as long as you count each object only once.
As you can see, there are many different skills involved in understanding how to count! It’s no wonder young children make so many counting mistakes. However, if we’re able to pinpoint which type of error they’re making, you can provide targeted instruction that addresses that particular mistake.
How can teachers and parents help kids learn to count?
It’s okay (in fact, it’s a good idea) to let kids use their fingers to count. You might think counting on their fingers is an immature counting strategy, but let me explain why it’s so helpful. Our minds can only hold about 7 items of information at a time. When young children are practicing counting and haven’t mastered the skill yet, they need to hold a lot of information in their minds- which objects they’ve already counted, the sequence of counting words, which number they just said, etc. Using their fingers to physically touch each object as they count, or holding up a finger for each counting word, helps externalize some of that information from their minds. In other words, it reduces the amount of information the child needs to keep in their minds at once, making it easier to count.
Lastly, give kids lots and lots of practice counting! Count the number of stairs as you climb a staircase, count the number of Goldfish in their snack, the number of toy cars in their room, etc. Children naturally love to count but parents and teachers can also help make it a fun activity. Count in a silly voice, make up a counting song, skip or hop or clap as you count. Make it into a game and see how high they can count. Don't worry if your child makes a counting mistake- that's a great opportunity to model good counting habits.