George Lucas Educational Foundation
The Research Is In

A Case for Finger Counting

New research suggests that young children may make gains in math by counting with their fingers.
Photo of a girl’s hands as she uses her fingers to do math
Photo of a girl’s hands as she uses her fingers to do math
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Teachers generally start telling children to stop counting on their fingers around the end of first grade—they’re learning to do math in their heads, and finger counting is sometimes seen as a crutch or even a sign of weak math ability.

A new British study published in Frontiers in Education suggests that this may be a mistake because finger counting seems to boost math learning when paired with number games.

In the four-week experiment, 137 6- and 7-year-old children were split into five groups. One group participated in finger-counting exercises such as counting from 1 to 10 using each finger, showing the correct number of fingers when told a specific number, and doing simple addition or subtraction problems using their fingers. The second group played number games (e.g., dominoes and card games). The third and fourth groups did both—they performed finger-counting exercises and played number games. The final group was the control and didn’t participate in either the exercises or the games.

Children who did only the finger-counting exercises improved their finger sense (the ability to mentally differentiate between fingers), while those who played number games were better able to visually gauge the relative size of pairs of dot groupings. And children who participated in both activities outperformed the control group in multiple math-related skills, including counting, ordering, comparing, and adding.

In other words, while number games slightly boosted one math skill, children experienced larger gains on a range of tests when they also used their fingers.

The authors of the study, Tim Jay and Julie Betenson, suggest an intriguing explanation for the boost: The “part of the brain that responds to number lies in close proximity to the area that is activated whenever subjects perform pointing and grasping activities.” So when we use our fingers, we also activate the areas of our brain associated with counting. This parallel processing may explain why young children benefit from finger counting.

While older students should eventually move past finger counting, there’s now a strong case to let younger students continue.

The takeaway: Don’t discourage young children from counting on their fingers—it may actually boost math learning, especially when paired with number games.

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cmcdonald21's picture

If you read the study the results show that finger counting alone doesn't have much of an impact. It's a combination of games and finger counting that improves the learning.

Youki Terada's picture
Youki Terada
Research and Standards Editor

Thanks, cmcdonald21. I do pretty clearly state throughout the article that finger counting with number games has a larger impact than either alone. It's also generally accepted that number games help boost math skills, but finger counting is often seen as a crutch for young students. The big takeaway from the study, for me, is that finger counting shouldn't be treated as something to be avoided--at least for 6- and 7-year old kids. It has benefits, despite being perceived as a sign of weak math ability. Forcing young kids to avoid finger counting is actually doing a disservice to them.

cmcdonald21's picture

I agree. I think the article title is a bit misleading. The article itself does provide a valid summary of the research. Should have been more clear on that in my initial response.

L.L. Barkat's picture
L.L. Barkat
Author, Publisher, Educator

This is fascinating. I'm especially interested in it, on three counts (no pun originally intended ;-) :

1. The connection found by JPL Industries (as discussed in Stuart Brown's book on play), between levels of innovative/problem-solving capacities in engineers based on their level of childhood play that specifically involved the hands (they were more innovative when their childhood play quotient was high)

2. The connection found between finger pointing as questioning behavior in babies and their subsequent language development speed (faster for those who point more and get their "questions" answered), as discussed in Ian Leslie's book Curiosity

3. The connection between piano playing and math development (so it's not just the "music" aspect but also perhaps the finger involvement)

Overall, what these connections suggest is that math, language, and innovation skills in general might be furthered from a more holistic approach that seems natural to a child (until the child is encouraged or discouraged by adults and environments regarding their natural bent to engage in physical play and use physical "figuring" and "modeling")

JosephSwanson's picture

I used to work at a math tutoring center that discouraged finger counting for all students, even the young ones like are mentioned here. Instead we would have them start using mental strategies, drawing, or sometimes counting with manipulatives. This is important research for math teachers and tutors who work with young children. I do wonder if using manipulatives, such as unit cubes or other counters, has the same benefit. The advantage to your fingers is that they are always with you when you need them, unlike manipulatives.

Youki Terada's picture
Youki Terada
Research and Standards Editor

Great question, JosephSwanson. I tracked down this article from Principal magazine:
https://www.naesp.org/sites/default/files/resources/2/Principal/2007/S-O...

>The long-term use of mathematics manipulatives is positively related to student achievement and attitudes about mathematics. It is not enough, however, to simply provide students with manipulatives; they must be taught how to use these materials.

In general, manipulatives are regarded as beneficial for student learning. This meta-analysis of the research supports the use of manipulatives, but cautions that teacher instruction still plays a large role:
https://www.researchgate.net/publication/248701204_A_Meta-Analysis_of_th...

It also suggests that manipulatives are more beneficial for retention, but not as helpful for problem-solving and transfer.

t k's picture
t k
1st grade teacher new york

I feel vindicated. I'm tutoring elementary math for almost 30 years. I have to use all my fingers (excuse the pun) to count how many arguments I had with teachers and even parents, When I tell them that I encourage my students to use their fingers. My usual line is, "GD gave them to you use them."

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