Maybe it is ok for children to count on their fingers…

I remember my own teacher repeating not to count on our fingers, but this new research shows using fingers may be a much more important part of maths learning than previously thought.

From the press release:

Is it OK for children to count on their fingers? Generations of pupils have been discouraged by their teachers from using their hands when learning maths. But a new research article, published in Frontiers in Education shows using fingers may be a much more important part of maths learning than previously thought.

The article, by Professor Tim Jay of Sheffield Hallam University and independent researcher Dr Julie Betenson, confirms what parents have long felt instinctively – that the sorts of finger games children often play at home are central to their education.

The researchers worked with 137 primary pupils aged between six and seven. All the children were given different combinations of counting and number games to play – but only some were given exercises which involved finger-training.

Some pupils played games involving number symbols, such as dominoes, shut-the-box, or snakes and ladders.

Other pupils were asked to play finger games: such being asked to hold up a given number of fingers, or numbering fingers from 1–5 and then having to match one of them by touching it against the corresponding finger on the other hand, or tracing coloured lines using a particular finger.

Both these groups did a little better in maths tests than a third group of pupils who had simply had ‘business as usual’ with their teachers. But the group which did both the counting and the finger games fared significantly better.

“This study provides evidence that fingers provide children with a ‘bridge’ between different representations of numbers, which can be verbal, written or symbolic. Combined finger training and number games could be a useful tool for teachers to support children’s understanding of numbers,” Professor Jay said.

Abstract of the study:

Previous research indicates that the use of fingers as representations of ordinal and cardinal number is an important part of young children’s mathematics learning. Further to this, some studies have shown that a finger training intervention can improve young children’s quantitative skills. In this article, we argue that fingers represent a means for children to connect different external representations of number (including verbal, symbolic, and non-symbolic representations). Therefore, we predicted that an intervention that combined finger training with experience playing games involving multiple representations would lead to greater increases in quantitative skills than either aspect of the intervention alone. One hundred and thirty-seven children aged between 6 and 7 years old took part in an intervention study over the course of 4 weeks. The study tested the impact of five different conditions on participants’ quantitative skills, their finger gnosis, and their ability to compare magnitudes of two non-symbolic representations of number. Relative to a control group, those children receiving a finger training intervention saw gains in finger gnosis skills (the ability to differentiate fingers when touched, without visual cues). Those children who played number games saw an increase in their non-symbolic magnitude comparison skills. However, only those children who experienced both aspects of the intervention saw increases in quantitative skills, which were assessed using an instrument informed by Gelman and Gallistel’s (1978) five principles of counting. The findings show that a finger training intervention, when combined with intensive exposure to multiple representations of number can support young children’s development of quantitative skills. This adds to evidence in the literature regarding the role of fingers in children’s mathematics learning and may have implications for pedagogical approaches.


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