Why do some older kids (and adults) still count on their fingers?

Talking with upper elementary and junior high school teachers, a common complaint is that some kids are still counting on their fingers for basic addition facts. This is a fine strategy for a 1st grader, but what about the 7th grader, who tries to hide his finger counting under the desk? Relying on finger counting becomes especially problematic as students confront more complicated mathematics because kids end up wasting their cognitive resources on figuring out simple addition facts rather than concentrating on solving equations. But why is it that some kids struggle?Looking to the research, we know that there are four main strategies that children typically use to solve addition problems, but children who struggle in math follow a very different strategy trajectory.

Typical Development – Solving 3 + 4

trajectory-normal

Poor math performers

trajectory-poor

Typically, kids figure out that addition facts are related, so that if you know 3 + 3 = 6, that can help you solve 3 + 4. If you know 8 + 2 = 10, that can help you figure out 8 + 3. But some kids don’t make that connection and see each addition fact as separate. These kids who struggle often have poor memory, so if they forget what the answer to 8 + 3 is, their backup strategy is to count on, often using their fingers.Another kid, who sees how these facts inter-relate, may also forget the answer to 8 + 3 but can quickly reason that if 8 + 2 is 10 then 8 + 3 would be 11. Using a derived fact as a backup strategy does not take up as many cognitive resources as counting on, letting this child concentrate on more complex mathematics.

For more info on this topic, keep tuned in and let us know your questions and comments. We’re working on a white paper on addition strategy development….Coming soon.
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Kara