Over the past few weeks, my friend and colleague, @pamelwood, and I have faced questions around counting…such as, “What comes before counting?”, “Why can’t a particular child count?”, and “What can I do to help my children learn to count?”
To be honest, we cringe a bit when we hear these questions, because we know the answers can only be found by asking more questions. In other words, only through good detective work, which includes gathering and analyzing good assessment information, can we hope to find answers.
That said, it is impossible to get “good information” and find answers to questions, if we don’t have a clear definition of what the “it” is. The “what” we want the child to know or be able to do.
When it comes to counting, as an example, if you aren’t clear what you mean by “counting;” then it’s hard to understand if the child is able to count, if they are struggling, and what to do from an instructional perspective.
On the face of it, I know…counting is counting, but let’s break it down. First, there are at least two major “types” of counting. The type when a child knows number names and can say them in correct order (e.g., 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10); and the type where a child counts by assigning tags to each object, once and only once.
During the preschool years, teachers expect children to learn both types of counting, which requires a whole host of other skills to develop at the same time. For example, while learning to count, children are also learning to manipulate objects, solve problems, sequence, comprehend, quantify, and know the attributes and associations of objects.
In addition to the skills that are simultaneously emerging, the complexity with which children can demonstrate skills related to counting is also developing. For example, they are moving from concrete ideas and materials to working with and applying more abstract concepts. They are moving from familiar and simple to more unfamiliar and complicated ideas. They are also moving from things that are mostly driven and related to themselves, and to things that impact those around them.
Well, as brain architects (aka loving adults who teach), we are continually faced with sifting through this level of complexity in order to design, implement, and evaluate instruction.
But the questions remain, what if a child is struggling with counting, what comes before, and what should be the focus of instruction?
The hard truth is, there isn’t a single skill that “comes before;” however, there are building blocks that may need instructional attention before worrying about either type of counting.
Here are a few related skills that serve as building blocks to being able to count:
- One-to-one correspondence (pairing)
- Recall (basic memory)
- Matching (notices how things go together)
- Subitizing (knowing without counting)
- Knowing same and different (intuitively)
In other words, if a child is struggling with counting, look to see how they are doing with related skills that serve as the building blocks for counting.
Additionally, before thinking there is a problem or a delay, or before thinking you need to “teach louder in the hallway,” keep in mind that a child also requires a series of prerequisite skills to engage in something as complex as counting. In particular, they need an awareness of objects, interests in the attributes of objects, and a sense of curiosity.
The next time you find yourself wondering “what comes before”…take a step back and make sure you:
- Define what “it” is you want the child to do or know.
- Support development on skills that are emerging simultaneously.
- Promote the building blocks for learning more complex skills.
- Ensure children are interested and have the foundational skills to support learning.
“Sometimes the questions are complicated and the answers are simple.” ~Dr. Seuss
P.S. Check out the Early Math Collaborative – Erikson Institute for more on the big Ideas of Early Mathematics.