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Getting ‘stuck’ on fingers hinders maths ability in young


9 September 2007
As children, most of us used our fingers to help us count by ‘ones’, slowly and deliberately, as we solved our first simple mathematical puzzles.

But how and why some children go on to develop normal or even exceptional maths skills, while others painfully struggle and keep counting by ‘ones’, has been a learning conundrum Southern Cross University’s Associate Professor Bob Wright has been trying to unravel for most of his teaching and research career.

Professor Wright, a renowned expert in the field of math learning difficulties who has published extensively on the subject, including textbooks for teachers, will present a paper about his research and methods on Tuesday, September 18, from 4pm to 5.30pm, at the Lismore campus in room Z-181.

The free seminar is being held in conjunction with the University’s Centre for Children and Young People and research associate, David Ellemor-Collins from the School of Education. It will be of particular interest to primary and secondary school teachers, parents and academics.

“A significant proportion of students have difficulties learning basic arithmetic and this limits their development of numeracy,” Professor Wright said.

“There are very few instructional programs to address numeracy difficulties and very few Australian schools systematically address this problem so there have been many calls to identify effective remedial approaches for the various identified weaknesses.”

Professor Wright has found that low-attaining maths students often use inefficient count-by-ones strategies and error-prone rote procedures, and depend on concrete supporting materials or fingers. Hence, intervention instruction needs to develop students’ number knowledge to support non-count-by-ones strategies, and to move students to independence from concrete materials to more abstract thinking.

For his research Professor Wright has spent three years working with a specialist teacher in each of 25 schools studying how Year 3 and Year 4 children with learning difficulties develop their maths skills and he has developed a unique intervention program to help them get better at this essential life skill.

He has found that those students who struggle with maths will approach typical maths problems very differently from other students for whom maths comes more naturally – and he believes he knows why.

Learning arithmetic begins with learning to add and subtract in the range 1 to 20, Professor Wright said. Although students’ initial strategies involve counting-by-ones, developing past this is an important aspect of early number learning. Students can then develop strategies more sophisticated than counting by ones, such as adding through ten (e.g. 8+6 = 8+2+4), using fives (6+7 = 5+5+1+2), and near-doubles (e.g. 6+7 = 6+6+1).

Efficient calculation also involves knowledge of additive number relations, such as 8+9 = 9+8, and inversion: 15+2 = 17 implies that 17-15 = 2.

The development of efficient, non-count-by-ones calculation in the range 1 to 20 is important. Counting-by-ones can be slow and error-prone while fluent calculation promotes number sense and numerical reasoning, and develops a part-whole conception of numbers, providing a basis for further learning.

Photo: Professor Bob Wright has developed a new way of teaching maths to students with learning difficulties.

Media Contact: Zoe Satherley, Southern Cross University media officer, 6620 3144, 0439 132 095.