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Rote Learning Is Not the Same as Understanding

Collage of photos of babies eating and the cover of the gift of math book

What is the same about 5 fingers and 5 spoons? The quantity or number of them. This is a truly difficult concept to get. It is an important math idea that cannot be only memorized. Children often count by rote, even at an early age, but that does not mean they understand the math behind a number. A real number stands for a quantity of the same thing that can be counted: 5 fingers, 5 crayons, 5 minutes are all the same quantity 5. The information that a number means a quantity is most important. Any time is a good time to teach your child to count real numbers. Open 5 gifts, eat 5 pancakes, give momma 5 kisses, wave goodbye to grandma 5 times.

After years of teaching, pre-K teacher Carol Aymar, EdD, MEd, explains, “Real numbers tell us how many of something—like fingers or toes--there are. A hand has 5 fingers. Hold up a hand and say what you see. 5 tells how many fingers you have on one hand. See 5. Say 5. A hand has 5 fingers: 1, 2, 3, 4, 5 fingers.

What else has 5? Your other hand? Spoons on a table? Minutes before lunch? A number tells us something – how many of something.”

Rote counting is different. Numbers appear in poems and chants. Here the number is used because it makes a rhyme. Rote learning is memorized. It does not represent the number of something. Examples:

Rote counting: “1,2,3,4,5” consists of memorized sounds.

Poem: “1,2,3,4,5, I caught a fish alive.”

Chant: “1, 2, buckle my shoe, 3, 4, out the door.”

See and . Or go to our partner Play Smart Literacy at to share literacy games, play videos and make contact with play coaches on Chicago’s South Side.

Our workbook, The Gift of Math: Twelve Math Conversation Starters for Parents and Young Children is based on recent research about how babies and toddlers learn Math Talk. It is available for pre-order from Amazon, Barnes & Noble, Bookbaby, and Walmart.


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