Finger Counters and Dot Counters and Foot Tappers, Oh My!

(ROCKWALL, TX – May 5, 2016) Picture this scenario.

A teacher asks a classroom of students:

“If you spend 70 cents, 80 cents, and 90 cents, how much did you spend altogether?”

The teacher is thinking,

“7 + 8 + 9 = 24.  With a zero at the end, the answer would be 240 cents.”

However, the finger or dot counting students, which is sadly too many of them, are thinking,

“7 + 8 = 7…8…9…10…11…12…13…14…15,” then “15 + 9 = 15…16…17…18…19…20…21…22…23…24…25 (oops).”

Many times, children who use these techniques get the wrong answer because they either count too many or too few due to losing track of where they are.

Now, since the process of “getting it wrong” is not surprisingly, uninspiring and time–consuming, many students report being “bored” in math class. In addition, the process has taken so long that the student is no longer in the flow of the lesson, which in this case, is learning about how to “add a 0 at the end because they have been learning to think about adding 10’s.

The term “number facts” includes all addition, subtraction, multiplication, and division problems resulting in single–digit and double–digit numbers (up to 24 for addition and subtraction, and 144 for multiplication and division). Examples of number facts include:

3 + 7 = 10            13 – 5 = 8            5 x 9 = 45            120 ÷ 10 = 12.

In school, often the emphasis is put on memorization of “number facts.”  While every student should memorize some basics, no one can memorize a large number of facts.

“Numerical Fluency” is the ability to effortlessly recall or— “to know by heart” these and similar facts. Students should be able to tap into their reliable, quick, and knowable ways to answer “number facts” questions that involve larger numbers.

Many students in 2nd through 5th grades (and higher) have a limited grasp of numerical fluency. Hence, their ability to stay in the flow of new lessons is hampered. This makes mathematics a frustrating and painful process for everyone involved—the kids, the teachers, and the parents!

As important as memorizing the basic facts is, it does not promote the mathematical thinking and problem solving skills that are required for long–term success in math. Eventually, most students will forget what they have memorized.

It is fairly easy to forget that which you have memorized, but nearly impossible to forget that which you have learned.

What students need to do is to build mental structures, frameworks for learning,so that they have the math skills to tackle the more difficult number facts. Then they won’t have to worry about “forgetting” these facts because they have the math skills to find the answer.

Don’t let the “Summer Slide” cause your children to lose those memorized facts. Take every opportunity this year to help your student to develop skills that will carry them into next year.

By Blue Ribbon News guest columnists Bob and Becky Barnes with Mathnasium Learning Center in Rockwall. Contact them at




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