Subitizing: What Is It? Why Teach It?
By Douglas H. Clements
Printed from Teaching Children Mathematics, March 1999 and with permission from NCTM
Three pictures hang in front of a six month-old child. The first shows two dots, the others show one dot
and three dots. The infant hears three drumbeats. Her eyes move to the picture with three dots.
Young children spontaneously use the ability to recognize and discriminate small numbers of objects
(Klein and Starkey 1988). But some elementary school children cannot immediately name the number of pips
showing on the dice. What is this ability? When and how does it develop? Is it a special way of counting?
Should we teach it?
Subitizing: A Long History
Subitizing is "instantly seeing how many." From a Latin word meaning suddenly, subitizing is the direct
perceptual apprehension of the numerosity of a group. In the first half of the century, researchers believed that
counting did not imply a true understanding of number but that subitizing did (e.g., Douglass ). Many saw
the role of subitizing as a developmental prerequisite to counting. Freeman (1912) suggested that whereas
measurement focused on the whole and counting focused on the unit, only subitizing focused on the whole and the
unit; therefore, subitizing underlay number ideas. Carper (1942) agreed that subitizing was a more accurate than
counting and more effective in abstract situations.
In the second half of the century, educators developed several models of subitizing and counting. They
based some models on the same notion that subitizing was a more "basic" skill than counting (Klahr and Wallace
1976; Schaeffer, Eggleston, and Scott 1974). One reason was that children can subitize directly through
interactions with the environment, without social interactions. Supporting this position, Fitzhugh (1978) found
that some children could subitize sets of one or two but were not able to count them. None of these very young
children, however, was able to count any sets that he or she could not subitize. She concluded that subitizing is a
necessary precursor to counting. Certainly, research with infants suggests that young children possess and
spontaneously use subitizing to represent the number contained in small sets and that subitizing emerges before
counting (Klein and Starkey 1988).
As logical as this position seems, counterarguments exist. In 1924, Beckmann found that younger children
used counting rather than subitizing (cited in Solter [19761). Others agreed that children develop subitizing later, as
a shortcut to counting (Beckwith and Restle 1966; Brownell 1928; Silverman and Rose 1980). In this view,
subitizing is a form of rapid counting (Gelman and Gallistel 1978).
Researchers still dispute the basis for subitizing ability, with patterns and attentional mechanisms the main
explanations (Chi and Klahr 1975; Mandler and Shebo 1982; von Glaserfeld 1982). Lower animal species seem to
have some perceptual number abilities, but only birds and primates also have shown the ability to connect a
subitized number with a written mark or an auditory label (Davis and Perusse 1988).
Two Types of Subitizing
Given that animals are able to subitize, is this procedure a low-level process? Not necessarily. A single
mechanism may not underlie all forms of subitizing. We can resolve research contradictions by recognizing that
two types of subitizing exist.
Perceptual subitizing is closest to the original definition of subitizing: recognizing a number without using
other mathematical processes. For example, children might "see 3" without using any learned mathematical
knowledge. Perceptual subitizing may involve mechanisms similar to those used by animals. Two-year-old
children show this ability clearly (Gelman and Gallistel 1978). Perceptual subitizing accounts for some surprising
abilities of infants, such as the one described at the beginning of this article.
Perceptual subitizing also plays an even more primitive role, one that most of us do not even think about
because we take it for granted. This role is making units, or single "things," to count. This ability seems obvious to
us. However, "cutting out" pieces of experience, keeping them separate, and coordinating them with number
words is no small task for young children. Even when they count their fingers, for example, they have to
mentally "cut out" one part of the hand from the next to create units. They then have to connect each of these
units with one, and only one, number word.
But how is it that people see an eight-dot domino and 'lust know" the total number? They are using the
second type of subitizing. Conceptual subitizing plays an advanced-organizing role. People who "just know" the
domino's number recognize the number pattern as a composite of parts and as a whole. They see each side of the
domino as composed of four individual dots and as "one four." They see the domino as composed of two groups
of four and as "one eight." These people are capable of viewing number and number patterns as units of units
(Steffe and Cobb 1988).
Spatial patterns, such as those on dominoes, are just one kind. Other patterns are temporal and
kinesthetic, including finger patterns, rhythmic , and spatial-auditory patterns. Creating and using these patterns
through conceptual subitizing help children develop abstract number and arithmetic strategies (Steffe and Cobb
1988). For example, children use temporal patterns when counting on: "I knew there were three more, so I just
said, 'Nine . . . ten, eleven, twelve,' rhythmically gesturing three times, one "beat" with each . They use finger
patterns to figure out addition problems. Children who cannot subitize conceptually are handicapped in learning
such arithmetic processes. Children who can may subitize only small numbers at first. Such actions, however,
can be stepping-stones to constructing more sophisticated procedures with larger numbers.
Subitizing and counting
Young children may use perceptual subitizing to make units for counting and to build their initial ideas of
cardinality. For example, their first cardinal meanings for number words may be labels for small sets of subitized
objects, even if they deter-mined the labels by counting (Fuson 1992; Steffe, Thompson, and Richards 1982).
Children use counting and patterning abilities to develop conceptual subitizing. This more advanced ability to
group and quantify sets quickly in turn supports their development of number sense and arithmetic abilities. A
first grader explains the process for us. Seeing a three-by-three pattern of dots, she immediately says, "Nine."
Asked how she reached her answer, she replied as follows:
When I was about four years old, I was in nursery school. All I had to do was count. And so, I just
go like 1,2,3,4,5, 6, 7, 8, 9, and I just knew it by heart and I kept on doing it -when I was five too.
And then I kept knowing 9, you know. Exactly like this [she pointed to the array]. (Ginsberg 1977,
What Factors Make Conceptual Subitizing Easy or Hard?
The spatial arrangement of sets influences how difficult they are to subitize. Children usually find
rectangular arrangements easiest, followed by linear, circular, and scrambled arrangements (Beck-with and Restle
1966; Wang, Resnick, and Boozer 1971). This progression holds true for students from the primary grades to
Certain arrangements are easier for specific numbers. Arrangements yielding a better "fit" for a given
number are easier (Brownell 1928). Children make fewer errors for ten dots than for eight when dots are in the
"domino five" arrangement but make fewer errors for eight dots when using the "domino four" arrangement.
For young children, however, neither of these arrangements is easier for any number of dots. Indeed, two-
to four-year-olds show no differences among any arrangements of four or fewer items (Potter and Levy 1968).
For larger numbers, linear arrangements are easier than rectangular arrangements. It seems, then, that most
preschool children cannot subitize conceptually. Instead, they count one by one. By school age, they can learn
to subitize conceptually, although first graders' limits for subitizing scrambled arrangements is about four or five
items (Dawson 1953).
If the arrangement does not lend itself to grouping, people of any age have more difficulty with larger sets
(Brownell 1928). They also take more time with larger sets (Beckwith and Restle 1966).
Some special populations find subitizing particularly difficult. Only a minority (31%) of moderately
handicapped children and a slight majority (59%) of mildly handicapped children can success-fully subitize sets
of three and four items (Baroody 1986).
Finally, textbooks often present sets that discourage subitizing. Their pictures combine many inhibiting
factors, including complex embedding, different units with poor form (e.g., birds that were not simple in design as
opposed to squares), lack of symmetry, and irregular arrangements (Carper 1942; Dawson 1953). Such
complexity hinders conceptual subitizing, increases errors, and encourages simple one-by-one counting.
Implications for Teaching
Subitizing is an important mathematics skill. But can subitizing be "taught"? Some might argue that it
cannot, but that conclusion depends on what is meant by 'teach." Everybody Counts says, "In reality, no one can
teach mathematics. Effective teachers are those who can stimulate students to learn mathematics" (National
Research Council 1989, 58). I agree only if we define teaching as mere "telling." But I define teaching more
broadly (Clements 1997). Those who stimulate students to learn by setting up experiences, by guiding
investigations, and sometimes by telling - are teaching. Conceptual subitizing must be learned and there-fore be
fostered, or taught, in this broad sense. Row might we teach it?
Conceptual subitizing and number
Many number activities can promote conceptual subitizing. One particularly rich activity is "quick
images." When I play it with kindergarten students, I have two students stand on opposite sides of an overhead
projector. One student holds a pack of cards with holes punched in them (see fig. 1 for some examples). That
student places one of the cards on the overhead projector, and the other student takes it off as fast as she or he
can. Then the members of the class and I race to announce the number of dots. My students are delighted that
they often (and honestly!) beat me to the answer.
We play by using cards like those in the top row of figure 1, because research shows that rectangular and
dice arrangements are easiest for young children initially. At first I limit the game to small numbers. Only when
students are developing conceptual subitizing do we play with more complex patterns like those in the bottom
Of the many worthwhile variations of the quick-image activity, some are suitable for students in any
•Have students construct a quick-image arrangement with manipulatives.
•With cards like those in figure 1, play a matching game. Show several cards, all but one of which have the
same number. Ask children which card does not belong.
•Play concentration games with cards that have different arrangements for each number. For a version of
this game and other helpful activities, see Baratta-Lorton (1976).
•Give each child cards with zero through ten dots in different arrangements. Have students spread the
cards in front of them. Then announce a number. Students find the matching card as fast as possible and
hold it up. Have them use different sets of cards, with different arrangements, on different days. Later,
hold up a written numeral as their cue. Adapt other card games for use with these card sets (see Clements
and Callahan ).
•Place various arrangements of dots on a large sheet of poster board. With students gathered around you,
point out one of the groups as students say its number as fast as possible. Hold the poster board in a
•different orientation each time you play.
•Challenge students to say the number that is one (later, two) more than the number on the quick image.
They might also respond by showing a numeral card or writing the numeral. Alternatively, they can find
the arrangement that matches the numeral that you show.
•Encourage students to play any of these games as a free-time or station activity.
The development of imagery is another reason that these activities are valuable. Conceptual subitizing is a
component of visualization in all its forms (Markovits and Hershkowitz 1997). Children refer to mental images
when they discuss their strategies. In addition, we can enhance students' knowledge of both geometry and
number by purposely combining the two. For example, play quick images with arrangements like the one in
figure 2 . Older students might say, "A square has four sides, and there were two dots just on each side, and four
more on the corners, so I figured twelve."
Also play quick images that involve estimation. For example, show students arrangements that are too
large to subitize exactly. Encourage them to use subitizing in their estimation strategies. Emphasize that using
good strategies and being “close” are the goals, not getting the exact number. Begin with organized geometric
patterns, but include scrambled arrangements eventually. Encourage students, especially those in higher grades,
to build more sophisticated strategies: from guessing, to counting as much as possible and then guessing, to
comparing ("It was more than the previous one"), to grouping (“They are spread about four in each place. I
circled groups of four in my head and then counted six groups. So, twenty-four!”). Students do perform better,
and use more sophisticated strategies and frames of reference, after engaging in such activities (Markovits and
Hershkowitz 1997). For these and for all subitizing activities, stop frequently to allow students to share their
perceptions and strategies.
Across many types of activities, from class discussions to textbooks, students should be shown pictures
of numbers that encourage conceptual subitizing. Initially, groups to be subitized should follow these guidelines:
(a) groups should not be embedded in pictorial context; (b) simple forms, such as homogeneous groups of circles
or squares rather than pictures of animals or mixtures of any shapes, should be used for the units; (c) regular
arrangements should be emphasized, and most should include symmetry, with linear arrangements for
preschoolers and rectangular arrangements for older students being easiest; and (d) good figure-ground contrast
should be used.
Remember that patterns can also be temporal and kinesthetic, including rhythmic and spatial-auditory
patterns. My kindergartners' favorite numeral-writing activities involve auditory rhythms. They scatter around
the classroom on the floor with individual chalkboards. I walk around the room, then stop and make a number of
sounds, such as ringing a bell three times. They write the numeral 3 on their chalkboards and hold them up.
Special populations deserve special attention to subitizing. Because conceptual subitizing often depends on
accurate enumeration skill, teachers should remedy deficiencies in counting early (Baroody 1986). Cultivate a
familiarity with regular patterns by playing games that use dice or dominoes. Most important, do not take basic
number competencies, such as subitizing, for granted in special populations.
Conceptual subitizing and arithmetic
Use conceptual subitizing to develop ideas about addition and subtraction. It provides an early basis for
addition, as students "see the addends and the sum as in 'two olives and two olives make four olives' " (Fuson
1992, 248). A benefit of subitizing activities is that different arrangements suggest different views of that number
Conceptual subitizing can also help students advance to more sophisticated addition and sub-traction. For
example, a student may add by counting on one or two, solving 4 + 2 by saying "4, 5, 6," but be unable to count
on five or more, as would be required to solve 4 + 5 by counting "4-5, 6, 7, 8, 9." Counting on two, however,
gives them a way to figure out how counting on works. Later they can learn to count on with larger numbers by
developing their conceptual subitizing or by learning different ways of "keeping track."
Children can use familiar spatial patterns to develop conceptual subitizing of arithmetic. For example,
students can use tens frames to visualize addition combinations (fig. 4). Such pattern recognition can assist
students with mental handicaps and learning disabilities as they learn to recognize the five- and ten-frame
configuration for each number. "These arrangements ... help a student first to recognize the number and use the
model in calculating sums. It is this image of the number that stays with the student and becomes significant"
(Flexer 1989). Visual-kinesthetic finger patterns can similarly help, especially with the important number
combinations that sum to 10.
Eventually, students come to recognize number patterns as both a whole-a unit itself-and a composite of
parts-individual units. At this stage, a student is capable of viewing number and number pat-terns as units of
units (Steffe and Cobb 1988). For example, students can repeatedly answer what number is "10 more" than
another number. "What is 10 more than 23?" "33!" "Ten more?" "43!"
"Subitizing is a fundamental skill in the development of students' understanding of number" (Baroody
1987, 115). Students can use pattern recognition to discover essential properties of number, such as conservation
and compensation. They can develop such capabilities as unitizing, counting on, and composing and decomposing
numbers, as well as their understanding of arithmetic and place value-all valuable components of number sense.
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