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Teach Numbers 1 to 3 to maximize young children's number sense

Image of John Schacter, Ph.D.
John Schacter, Ph.D.

In 1956, Harvard Professor George Miller published a landmark study called, The Magic Number 7 Plus or Minus 2.   Miller's study found that the average person can remember about seven new things at a time, and that 95% of people can remember between 5 and 9 new things.  This idea is often overlooked when teaching young children their numbers.

In early education classrooms children recite numbers to 31 on the calendar.  They listen to teachers read counting books, and they trace and color numbers.  Preschoolers put together number puzzles, play the memory game with numeral cards, and are encouraged to count.  While these activities build number awareness, many children don't develop number sense from exposure to these tasks.

The main reason is because too much number information is presented at one time for students to retain it.  To prove my point, test yourself.  Look at the numbers below for 30 seconds, and try to remember the numbers in their exact order.   

                          4    7    10    2    6    11     5     13    9     3    12     8     1      

Now, look away, wait 30 seconds, and see if you can write down the numbers in the exact order.  How many did you get correct? You probably remembered between 5 and 9 numbers, just like Professor Miller studies found. 

It's hard to recall a group of random things.  When early education teachers introduce lots of new numbers to young children at a single time, teachers are asking kids to remember too many random things.  This leads to children guessing, then giving up, similar to what you did when you tried to remember the list of random numbers above. 

Start by Teaching Numbers 1 to 3
Teaching only the numbers 1-to-3 to children first, will greatly enhance their understanding of number sense in the long run, because learning the numbers 1-to-3 won't overload children's capacity to remember. 

If you teach numbers 1-to-3 with fingers, then associate fingers to other concrete numbers like dice, and finally associate these concrete numbers (fingers and dice) to the symbolic numerals (1, 2, 3), you are presenting 9 new things for children to remember.  According to Prof. Miller, students will be able to retain this amount of new information.  

Fingers to 3 

Associate Fingers to Dice fingerdice

Associate Dice to Symbolic Numbers numbdice

The examples above show that learning the numbers to 3 requires young children to hold 9 things in memory.  The examples also aid children in remembering numbers by relating numbers to their fingers (something familiar), associating their fingers to other concrete numbers, and finally associating these concrete numbers to symbolic numerals. 

As parents and preschool teachers are well aware, young children learn by doing.  In order to develop their number sense, children need to engage in a variety of matching, categorizing, ordering, and identifying activities to strengthen their number understanding. 

Professor George Miller, would be extremely pleased, and a lot more young children would be successful in mastering numbers if parents, care givers and teachers teach only the numbers to 3 first.

Teaching Teen Numbers

Image of John Schacter, Ph.D.
John Schacter, Ph.D.

Watch how to Teach Teen Numbers, or read our blog below!


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Image of John Schacter, Ph.D.
John Schacter, Ph.D.

When I work with early education teachers, the first question I ask is, "What math skills should...