Counting with Fingers – Is it Bad?

Is it bad to rely on your fingers to count ? Here’s the short answer: counting on your fingers is helpful for a 4 year old child, but spells trouble for a child beyond first grade ..

Here’s why.

Reason #1: It Drags You Down

By the time you are in Middle School, math teachers expect you to know addition, subtraction backward and forward at a clip. When a teacher is explaining algebra on the board, she expects to teach the concept, not slow down for the addition and subtraction in the process. A student who gets dragged down in the process will start falling behind. That’s why 3rd and 4th graders get speed trials, to prepare for the middle school math blackboard.

Reason #2: It can discourage mental math development

What is 8 + 9 ? Students who see math in their head, may add it this way: 8 + 10 – 1, or this way: 8 double + 1. These students have chucked finger counting for mental math. As they work out their mental math muscles, they get even better and better at it. He has upgraded a child’s tool for a more sophisticated and powerful tool. Here’s a favorite mental math challenge our center gives to a student? What’s 99 + 99 + 99? If you need a piece of paper and pencil, you’re on the wrong track.

Reason #3: How sure is the student of the answer?

Let’s come back to 8 + 9 again. When a student sees it as 8 + 10 = 18, then minus 1 equals 17, he’s 100% sure it’s right. Next time you see a student counting on her fingers, ask her how sure she is that it’s the right answer? Our observation: he’s not very sure. Counting fingers involves concentration, not skipping by accident, remembering where to start and where to end … It takes skill.

Reason #4: It could get embarrassing

We had a 5th grader start at our center who was still counting with her fingers. But you couldn’t tell because she had developed sophisticated ways to disguise her finger counting. She would spread her fingers out on the table and look at them and count in her head. She could visualize her toes on the desk as clearly as if she was looking right at them. Her lips would not move, but her head would be nodding in rhythm to her counting. Why go through all that disguise? She was embarrassed. Happy to say we prescribed the “Cure to Finger Counting” and in just a few weeks she was adding 15 + 16, half of 48, 7 * 99 mentally in her head.

Is finger counting to be avoided at all cost? Like everything else, it’s not the tool itself, it’s how you use it. When you ask a 4 year old, “Sweetie, how old will you be in 3 years?”, and her fingers pop up, she’s getting into math, she’s thinking math is an everyday affair. When a fifth grader is totaling up 6 baskets of 13 pastries and uses 6 fingers as a memory tool to count up by 13, that’s smart. I still use my fingers to figure out the day of the week I need to return my DVD. Just don’t let it be a crutch, at the expense of the student’s math development.

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