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Friday 8 March 2013

Learning Numbers

For young children who are beginning to learn numbers, it isn't about a single skill that they need to learn but a whole range of skills. The concept of numbers encompass many skills that include reciting the number sequence, counting with one-to-one correspondence, recognising the graphic representations, writing, subitising, ordering and comparing. Many parents only teach 1 or a few of these skills to their children and are confident that their children 'know their numbers'. 

In the following sections I will go through each of these skills.

1. Reciting the number sequence: 
This is the first thing that parents teach children and it is the easiest of the number skills that children learn. It is just recalling the spoken sequence of the numbers, usually to 10. Children will pick this up quickly. Once children have memorised 1 to 10 then extend them to 20. Most young children can manage this. 

Another skill is to count backwards. Once they have memorised counting forward from 1 to 10 then start counting backwards from 10 to 0. A favourite of children is to pretend to be a rocket and count backwards and after they have reached 0 they can then blastoff. 

2. Counting with One-to-One Correspondence
This is a skill that is tied in with the recitation of the number sequence but most children will not be able to do this without lots of practice. And parents do not usually teach this.

Counting with one-to-one correspondence is to count how many is in a given set of objects. (Read about counting.) What usually happens is that when asked to count how many in a set, children tend to recite the number sequence but point randomly at the objects in the set, sometimes their recitation is much faster or slower than their pointing and sometimes they double count some objects. The problem is that the spoken numbers do not correspondence or match the objects.

To give children practice in counting, parents must give children lots of hands on manipulatives to work with. Some things that can be used and are found in the home are: paper clips, large lego bricks, toy cars, crayons or pencils, bottle lids and so on. Start with small sets first such as 2 and 3 and demonstrate how to count by pointing and saying a number. Help children by holding their finger to point and touch the objects and saying the numbers. Once children can count correctly the small sets, increase the number in the sets.

3. Recognising the Graphic Representations
This is basically recognising the shapes of the numbers - that a'1' represents the number 1, a '2' represents the number 2 and so on.  This has to be taught using flashcards and charts. Children will need to memorise them and recall them. It helps with constant exposure. There are games that parents could play to help children such as number matching and number hunts.

Download these free playdough mats for numbers 1 to 10.

For more practice with counting and recognising numbers 1 to 10.

4. Writing

Many children can recognise the numbers but have difficulties in writing them. This is because writing numbers involves the fine motor skills. If children do not have developed fine motor skills then it is very difficult for them to write. (Read about fine motor skills.) They also need to hold the pencil properly in what is known as the 'pencil grip' using only 3 fingers, not 2 or 4 or 5. Believe me when I say that I have seen children holding the pencil in a variety of ways. (Read about the pencil grip.)

Notice the grip of the child in the above photo, his grip isn't correct. It takes children a while to get used to the correct position of their fingers. Just do not force it because they will become frustrated. What usually happens is that you put the pencil in the child's fingers in the correct position and they start out holding it this way but because their fingers are not used to that position they will change it to another position that they find more comfortable (but which will not allow them to write perfectly). Just let them finish whatever they're writing this way but the next time they start writing again place the pencil correctly in their fingers again. Gradually they will become used to the grip insha Allah.

Another reason why children find the pencil grip hard to write with is because they tend to move the whole hand and arm instead of just their fingers. Once they realised that to write all they need to do is to move the fingers then they will find the pencil grip allows them better control.

Writing numbers is also difficult because children need to know how to form the lines and/or shapes that make up that number. Writing number 1 is easy because it is only a straight line but writing number 2 involves forming a curve and then a straight line across - what about 5 and 8? Number 8 has got to be the most difficult digit to write. Children will usually draw 2 circles but the correct way is to write an 's' then draw a line from the end of the 's' to the beginning point without lifting the pencil off the paper. 

As you can see writing numbers involves many skills and only with practice can children improve.

Download free practice sheets of numbers 1 to 10.

5. Subitising
Subitising is the ability to instantly recognise the pattern in a set of objects. It usually works for small number sets and it relieves children from having to count. Think of a dotted dice. We all know what a 6 looks like without counting. It's this ability to instantly recognise the 6 pattern. This works with fingers as well. If I hold up 4 fingers, children should be able to recognise and say 4 immediately without having to count each finger.

It is easily taught - children just need constant exposure to these patterns.(Read more about subitizing.)

6. Ordering Numbers
Children need to know how put numbers in numerical order - that a 1 comes before a 2 then a 3 and so on. Just because they know how to recite the numbers in sequence does not mean that they will know how to order the numbers. To teach children this, hand out cards with numbers on them and ask children what number comes first (prompt them with number 1 card if they hesitate). Then ask them what number comes after 1 (help them by counting the sequence) and place the number 2 card after the 1 card, and so on.

7. Comparing
Children also need to know which number is smaller or larger by comparing them. If parents ask children "Which number is bigger - 3 or 8?", children would not know the answer. They need to have concrete examples. In this case, show children 3 counters and show them 8 counters in a separate group. Now if they are asked which is bigger or smaller, children would have no difficulty with the answer.

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