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Counting the Pips Vs. Subitizing

by Early Math Counts


While observing a kindergarten classroom the other day, I observed a child counting the pips on a die each time she rolled it.  The lesson asked that children roll one die, read the number of pips, and complete a word chart determined by the number.  Interestingly, this child could both read simple sight words and write them, but could not read the number 3 on a die.

This got me thinking about the activity itself.  It was clearly set up as a literacy lesson, asking that children practice their reading and writing, but the addition of the die asks that children also practice their subitizing skills.  Remember, subitizing is the ability to look at a group of objects, in this case the pips on the die, and know “how many” there are without counting them.  This ability to take a mental snapshot works much like reading sight words does but we work on sight word reading all of the time with children and focus on skills like subitizing much less often.  Even while observing this activity, the teacher worked diligently with the child on sounding out the words, reading them, and writing them down.  However, when the child tossed the die, she was left to figure out the number without the same sort of support.  Why is that?

If I had been supporting this activity, I would have focused on the die as much as on the words.  The math is as important as the reading and writing and deserves equal time.

There are several ways to support children as they begin to subitize.  One thing you can try is to have the child toss the die and then before she counts the pips, pick up the die and see if she can tell you “how many” were on it.  If she can’t, show her the side again and ask her “how many.”  Let her count and tell you how many there are.  The next time, try it again until she becomes more familiar with the patterns of the pips.  With ongoing support a child of 4 and 5 should easily be able to subitize up to 6.

4 Replies to “Counting the Pips Vs. Subitizing”

  1. In working with preschoolers and dice games…. I often wondered why some children said the number of pips while others always counted them out??
    Now I will use different methods to help them subsidize

    1. Good. Try and think of other ways that children \”see\” a number rather than counting it. Keep practicing this with other items that have numbers laid out in an obvious pattern – think a dozen eggs (12).m

  2. I find it interesting how few children have the opportunity to use dice at home. I love how excited they get when they are simply given dice to explore.

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