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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 [1925]). 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

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.

Conceptual subitizing

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,

16)

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

college.

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

row.

Of the many worthwhile variations of the quick-image activity, some are suitable for students in any

elementary grade.

•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 [1986]).

•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

(fig. 3).

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!"

Final Words

"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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