FAQ: He Won’t Stop Finger-Counting

My oldest son has somehow developed the horrid habit of counting on his fingers. We worked on the math facts all summer. He knows the answers in simple form, such as 9 + 4, but if it’s in a bigger problem like 249 + 54, he counts up to add or counts down to subtract, all using fingers. My younger children have no problem with mental math, but he can’t seem to get it. Are there any tips or tricks to stop this?

New Crutches

Counting on fingers is not a horrid habit, it is a crutch. Please think for a moment about the purpose of crutches. The blasted things are an uncomfortable nuisance, but there are times when you can’t get anywhere without them. And if you need them, it does you no good for a friend to insist you should crawl along on your own.

That is how your son feels right now about his fingers. He is struggling with something his younger siblings find easy, and he can tell that you are frustrated. His confidence is broken, in a cast, and needs time for healing. So he falls back on what he knows he can do, counting up the answer.

Think positive: this means he still believes that math ought to make sense — that to understand what he is doing is more important than to guess at an answer. You want him to value sense-making, because otherwise he will try to memorize his way through middle school and high school math. That is the road to disaster.

“Schools spend a lot of time working with young children to get these facts memorized, but many children aren’t ready for that task yet. They’ll count on their fingers, and may be reprimanded for it.
“What happens when a person becomes embarrassed about counting on their fingers? If they still want to think, they’ll hide it. That’s the better option. The worse option that way too many students choose? They start guessing. When math becomes too incomprehensible, or not living up to someone else’s expectations becomes too painful, many students give up on math, and then they just guess.
“We count on our fingers as part of a thinking process. Perhaps the thing I want to figure can be memorized. But if I haven’t memorized it yet myself, the most efficient way to figure it will likely involve fingers.

—Sue VanHattum

The Problem of Transfer

What you describe is called the problem of transfer, and it is one of the huge, unsolved problems of education.

We can train someone to do a simple, limited task such as answering flash cards. But how do we get that knowledge to sink in, to become part of the mind, so they can use it in all sorts of different situations?

No one has figured that out.

There is no easy solution. It requires patience, and providing a variety of experiences, and patience, and pointing out connections, and asking the student to think of connections, and lots more patience.

Some Things to Try

It might help to do fewer math problems in a day, so you can take time to work more deeply on each one. Talk together about the different ways you might solve it. Make it a challenge: “Can we think of three different ways to do it?”

In math, there is never just one way to get a solution. Thinking about alternatives will help your son develop that transfer of skills.

Or pick up some workbooks that target mental math methods. The Mental Math workbook series by Jack Hope and Barbara and Robert Reys will help him master the techniques your younger kids learned without effort. It may still take him longer to do a calculation than what you are used to with the other children, but these books will give him a boost in recognizing the types of mental tools he can use.

Here are a few of my previous blog posts that include mental math tips:

Or perhaps encourage him to keep using his fingers, but to switch to a more efficient system, such as Chisenbop. According to math education expert Jo Boaler, research shows that finger-counting supports mathematical understanding.

Mental Math: A Battle Worth Fighting

Jumping into mental math is hard for an older child who wasn’t taught that way. I believe it’s a battle worth fighting, because those mental math techniques build understanding of the fundamental properties of numbers.

But the main goal is for him to recognize his options and build flexibility, not to do each calculation as fast as possible.

And be sure he no longer needs those crutches before you try to take them away.


Photo credits: “Stryde Walking To School on his New Crutches” by Jim Larrison and “Silhouette of a boy” by TimOve via Flickr. (CC BY 2.0)

Click for details about Let's Play Math bookThis post is an excerpt from my book Let’s Play Math: How Families Can Learn Math Together—and Enjoy It, as are many of the articles in my Let’s Play Math FAQ series.

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Dreams for our Children

Don’t you love this quotation?

For our children, we dream that mathematics…

… makes sense
… is more than just arithmetic
… is joyous
… makes them strong
… is meaningful
… is creative
… is full of fascinating questions
… opens up many paths to solutions
… is friendly
… solves big problems and makes the world better
… is a powerful tool they can master
… is beautiful
… lets them learn in their own ways
… is connected to their lives
… asks “why” and not just “how”
… opens the world

Avoid Hard WorkFrom the upcoming new book Avoid Hard Work by James Tanton and the Natural Math team.

Join the crowdfunding campaign and reserve your copy today!

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New Book: Avoid Hard Work

I’ve loved James Tanton’s How to Be a Math Genius videos for years. He offers great problem-solving tips like:

  • Visualize: think of a picture.
  • Use common sense to avoid grungy work.
  • Engage in intellectual play.
  • Think relationally: understanding trumps memorization.
  • Be clear on what you don’t know — and comfortable enough to admit it.

Seriously, those are wonderful videos. If you haven’t seen them before, go check them out. Be sure to come back, though, because I’ve just heard some great news.

Natural Problem-Solving Skills

Avoid Hard WorkTanton has joined up with the NaturalMath.com team of Maria Droujkova, Yelena McManaman, and Ever Salazar to put together a book for parents, teachers, math circle leaders, and anyone else who works with children ages 3–10.

It’s called Avoid Hard Work, and it takes a playful look at ten powerful problem-solving techniques.

Join the Crowdfunding Campaign

For more details about Avoid Hard Work, including a 7-page pdf sample with tips and puzzles to enjoy, check out the crowdfunding page at Natural Math:

Read the questions and answers. Try the activities with your children. And donate to support playful math education!

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Playing with Math Shapes

Playing-with-shapesI love it when a plan — or rather, a series of math thoughts — comes together.

On Monday, Emily Grosvenor (author of the Tessalation! picture book) asked me how parents who are insecure in math could help their children learn through play, and I responded with this quote from my Let’s Play Math book:

If you are intimidated by numbers, you can look for patterns of shape and color. Pay attention to how they grow. Talk about what your children notice.

But I wasn’t entirely satisfied with that answer. So many adults have come away from their own school experience thinking math is only numbers. Even with shapes, isn’t it the numbers about them — how many sides, what size of angles, calculate the the area or perimeter — that are important? That’s what school math tends to focus on.

Those of us who are comfortable with math know that there are many more things to notice and think about than just numbers. We know that it’s this noticing, thinking, and wondering that is at the heart of math. And that just playing with shapes can build a powerful foundation for future math learning.

And then yesterday, Malke Rosenfeld posted a beautiful article about a paper manipulative created by Paula Krieg. Which included this video:

The ability to create, and maintain, and manipulate shapes mentally — that’s the goal. Just like kids who can put numbers together in their heads, kids who can rotate, flip, and think of how shapes fit together in their heads have a powerful tool to analyze not only simple shape puzzles, but dividing up an area that’s a more complex room shape … to look at a piece of artwork … or look at a building … For these kids, all the world around becomes a playground to use mathematical ideas.

— Doug Clements
Problem Solving Development: Composing Shapes

Of course, pattern blocks are good for much more than just filling in worksheet pictures. But I love this peek into how a child’s understanding grows, in bits and spurts — without any numbers at all — until the world itself becomes a playground for mathematical ideas.

Want more?

You know what? Children like mathematics. Children see the world mathematically … When we do a puzzle, when we count things, when we see who’s got more, or who’s taller … Play and mathematics are not on opposite sides of the stage.

— Doug Clements
Why Early Childhood is the Right Time to Start Learning Math

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Math Teachers at Play #97 Blog Carnival

Did you know 97 is an emirp?
Did you know 97 is an emirp? It’s prime both forward and backward! What other emirps can you find?

Welcome to the 97th edition of the Math Teachers At Play math education blog carnival: a monthly smorgasbord of links to bloggers all around the internet who have great ideas for learning, teaching, and playing around with math from preschool to pre-college.

A few articles were submitted by their authors, but most were drawn from the immense backlog in my rss reader. If you’d like to see your blog post featured next month, be sure to send it in yourself. Our hosts are busy parents and teachers who have limited time to scour the Internet for goodies.

To add a bit of color, I’ve thrown in several favorites from my newly updated Math with Living Books pages. Some (affiliate) links go to Amazon.com, where you can read descriptions and reviews — but there’s no need to buy. Most of these books should be available through your local library.

Table of Contents

If you’d like to skip directly to your area of interest, click here:

Please: If you enjoy the carnival, would you consider volunteering to host sometime this year? Classroom teachers, homeschoolers, unschoolers, or anyone who likes to play around with math (even if the only person you “teach” is yourself) — if you would like to take a turn, please speak up!

And now, let the mathematical fun begin!

Pinczes-A Remainder of One

When the queen of her bugs demands that her army march in even lines, Private Joe divides the marchers into more and more lines so that he will not be left out of the parade.

Talking Math with Kids

  • Crystal Wagner (@Tri_Learning) shares several Math Games to Play in the Car: “Or maybe you are waiting in line at the grocery store or doctor’s appointment. Turn these times of waiting into learning opportunities.”
  • Christopher Danielson (@Trianglemancsd) shows how The sequence machine can launch math conversations with older students: “Now you can generate number sequences, without being distracted by the multiplication facts.”


Help inspire your kids to try writing their own unique problems. Includes a wide range of math topics and concepts: money and time, fractions, percentages, geometry, logic, and multi-step problem solving.

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Continue reading Math Teachers at Play #97 Blog Carnival

FAQ: Lifelong Learning for Parents

I’m so tired of being ignorant about math. I can memorize rules and do calculations, but if I miss a step the numbers make no sense at all, and I can’t spot what went wrong. Another struggle I have is keeping everything organized in my mind. When I learn a new concept or strategy, I easily forget it. My son is only a toddler now, but as he grows up, I don’t want to burden him with my own failures. Where should I start?

As a first step, convince yourself that math is interesting enough to learn on its own merits, because parental guilt will only carry you so far. Start with Steven Strogatz’s “Elements of Math” series from The New York Times, or pick up his book The Joy of x.

As a next step, reassure yourself that elementary math is hard to understand, so it’s not strange that you get confused or don’t know how to explain a topic. Get Liping Ma’s Knowing and Teaching Elementary Mathematics from the library or order a used copy of the first edition. Ma examines what it means to understand math and to clearly explain it to others.

Don’t rush through the book as if it were a novel. There are four open-ended questions, each at the beginning of a chapter, after which several possible answers are analyzed. When you read one of these questions, close the book. Think about how you would answer it yourself. Write out a few notes, explaining your thoughts as clearly as you can. Only then, after you have decided what you would have said, read the rest of that section.

Don’t worry if you can’t understand everything in the book. Come back to it again in a couple of years. You’ll be surprised how much more you learn.


Books for Parents and Teachers

To build up your own understanding of elementary arithmetic, the Kitchen Table Math series by Chris Wright offers explanations and activities you can try with your children.

If you want more detailed guidance in understanding and explaining each stage of elementary mathematics, you can pick up a textbook designed for teachers in training. I like the Parker & Baldridge Elementary Mathematics for Teachers books and the Teaching Student-Centered Mathematics: Developmentally Appropriate Instruction series. The two series are completely different, but they complement each other well. Check out the sample chapters from the publishers’ websites to see which one you prefer.

Discover more great books on my Living Math Books for Parents and Other Teachers page.

Focus on Relationships

As you learn, focus on how the math concepts relate to each other. Then the more you learn, the easier you will find it to connect things in your mind and to grasp new ideas.

You might want to keep a math journal about the things you are learning. When you write something down, that helps you remember it, even if you never look back at the journal. But if your mind goes blank and you think, “I know I studied that,” the journal gives you a quick way to review. Make it even easier to flip back through by writing the topic you are studying in the top margin of each page.

When you run into a new vocabulary word, draw a Frayer Model Chart and fill in all the sections. The Frayer Model provides a way to organize information about a new vocabulary word or math concept.


And if you read something that’s particularly helpful, you may want to turn to the back page of your journal and start a quick-reference section.

Always Ask Why!

Find a fellow-learner to encourage you on your journey. Bouncing ideas off a friend is a great way to learn. You might want to join the parents and teachers who are learning math together at the Living Math Forum.

And here is the most important piece of advice I can offer. Your slogan must be the one used by the Chinese teachers Liping Ma interviewed: “Know how, and also know why.”

Always ask why the rules you learn in math work. Don’t stop asking until you find someone who can explain it in a way that makes sense to you. When you struggle with a concept and conquer it, it will make you free. You don’t have to be afraid of it anymore.

Know how, and also know why.

Click for details about Let's Play Math bookThis post is an excerpt from my book Let’s Play Math: How Families Can Learn Math Together—and Enjoy It, as are many of the articles in my Let’s Play Math FAQ series.

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Multiplication Is Not Repeated Addition: Update

Multiplication Is Not Repeated Addition: Update[Photo “Micah and Multiplication” by notnef via Flickr (CC-BY 2.0).]

Some Internet topics are evergreen. I noticed that my old Multiplication Is Not Repeated Addition post has been getting new traffic lately, so I read through the article again. And realized that, even after all those words, I still had more to say.

So I added the following update to clarify what seemed to me the most important point.

I’d love to hear your thoughts! The comment section is open down below . . .

Language Does Matter

Addition: addend + addend = sum. The addends are interchangeable. This is represented by the fact that they have the same name.

Multiplication: multiplier × multiplicand = product. The multiplier and multiplicand have different names, even though many of us have trouble remembering which is which.

  • multiplier = “how many or how much”
  • multiplicand = the size of the “unit” or “group”

Different names indicate a difference in function. The multiplier and the multiplicand are not conceptually interchangeable. It is true that multiplication is commutative, but (2 rows × 3 chairs/row) is not the same as (3 rows × 2 chairs/row), even though both sets contain 6 chairs.

A New Type of Number

In multiplication, we introduce a totally new type of number: the multiplicand. A strange, new concept sits at the heart of multiplication, something students have never seen before.

The multiplicand is a this-per-that ratio.

A ratio is a not a counting number, but something new, much more abstract than anything the students have seen up to this point.

A ratio is a relationship number.

In addition and subtraction, numbers count how much stuff you have. If you get more stuff, the numbers get bigger. If you lose some of the stuff, the numbers get smaller. Numbers measure the amount of cookies, horses, dollars, gasoline, or whatever.

The multiplicand doesn’t count the number of dollars or measure the volume of gasoline. It tells the relationship between them, the dollars per gallon, which stays the same whether you buy a lot or a little.

By telling our students that “multiplication is repeated addition,” we dismiss the importance of the multiplicand. But until our students wrestle with and come to understand the concept of ratio, they can never understand multiplication.

For Further Investigation

nunes-doingmathIf you’re interested in digging deeper into how children learn addition and multiplication, I highly recommend Terezina Nunes and Peter Bryant’s book Children Doing Mathematics.

To learn about modeling multiplication problems with bar diagrams, check out the Mad Scientist’s Ray Gun model of multiplication:

And here is an example of the multiplication bar diagram in action:

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