Tally It Up

In this lesson, children will organize and present tally sticks/marks to represent the number counted.

Lesson for:

(See Step 5: Adapt lesson for toddlers or preschoolers.)

Content Area:


Learning Goals:

This lesson will help toddlers and preschoolers meet the following educational standards:

  • Understand numbers, ways of representing numbers, relationships among numbers and number systems
  • Understand patterns, relations and functions

Learning Targets:

After this lesson, toddlers and preschoolers should be more proficient at:

  • Counting with understanding and recognizing “how many” in sets of objects
  • Using multiple models to develop initial understandings of place value and the base-ten system
  • Sorting, classifying and ordering objects by size, number and other properties

Tally It Up

Lesson plan for toddlers/preschoolers

Step 1: Gather materials.

  • 55 tally sticks (wooden craft sticks)
  • Number cards 1 through 10
  • The book, Tally Cat Keeps Track by Trudy Harris
  • Chart paper and an easel

Note: Small parts pose a choking hazard and are not appropriate for children age five or under. Be sure to choose lesson materials that meet safety requirements.

Step 2: Introduce activity.

  1. Ask the children a series of random polling questions, e.g.,”Who likes dogs? or “How many of you went to the park this weekend?”  When the children answer, record the results by using tally marks. Record the tally marks next to the questions posed, clearly labeled on the chart paper.
  2. When explaining how to count the tally marks, teach the children this rhyme to help them remember the concept: “1, 2, 3, 4—number 5 shuts the door—6, 7, 8, 9—number 10 draws the line.”
  3. Model the rhyme with your fingers, using your pointer finger for one, the middle finger for two, the ring finger for three, the pinky finger for four and then the thumb for the number five that “shuts the door.” Start with your palm open and fingers spread out and, as you count, fold each finger into your palm and then the thumb (number 5) goes across the folded fingers and makes a flat fist. Model the same with the other hand for numbers six through 10.
  4. Explain that today they are going to count and record items using tally marks.

Step 3: Engage children in lesson activities.

  1. Read the book, Tally Cat Keeps Track by Trudy Harris. Before reading the book, explain that Tally McNally is obsessed with keeping score using tally marks. All day long, the cat records who is faster, smarter, smaller, taller, etc. and, due to his sneaky ways, he wins every time. Read the book and pause on pages where there is an opportunity for the children to tally the results of Tally’s various contests. While the children are counting, point out the relationship between the one-to-one correspondence counting and the tally marks and bundling of the groups of five.
  2. The final two pages feature an explanation of what tally marks are, how to use them and how they are used by Tally Cat. Depending on your group, sometimes it is best to review the last two pages before reading the book.
  3. Explain that today the children will be tallying up the craft sticks. The children will each receive a bundle of sticks and 10 number cards. The children will lay out the tally sticks to represent the numbers on the cards. If the children lay out their tally sticks correctly, they will use all of their tally sticks.
  4. Have the children lay out the card first and then figure out how many sticks they will need to represent the number on the card.
  5. At first, the pile of tally sticks seems so big that the children do not think they will use all of them. It isn’t until they get to setting up nine and 10 that they realize they will need all of the sticks.

Additional Extensions

  • Include cards that go higher than 10. This will call for more tally sticks.
  • Include pictorial cards instead of number cards. For example, instead of having a card that has the number seven, the card will have a picture of seven objects (dots or flowers). The children will need to count and decide how many objects are on the card and then represent that number with tally marks.

Step 4: Vocabulary.

  • Tally: Using marks to record counting (e.g, “We are going to count by fives to get the total and tally up our answers.”)

Early Math Glossary

Step 5: Adapt lesson for toddlers or preschoolers.

Adapt Lesson for Toddlers
Toddlers may:
  • Have difficulty counting by fives
  • Have difficulty with one-to-one correspondence
Child care providers may:
  • Help bundle the fives when the children are counting (After separating the fives, reinforce bundling with the fifth stick. Repeat the “Shut the Door” rhyme as you model the bundling.)
  • Assist with the counting-out of the sticks to match the numbers on the cards.
Adapt Lesson for Preschoolers
Preschoolers may:
  • Already have mastered counting by fives
Child care providers may:
  • Include cards that go higher than 10 (this will call for more tally sticks)
  • Include pictorial cards instead of number cards (instead of a card with the number seven, the card will have a picture of seven objects—dots or flowers—that the children will count and then represent that number with tally marks)

Suggested Books

  • Tally Cat Keeps Track (Math is Fun!) by Trudy Harris (Minneapolis, MN: Lerner Pub Group, 2010)
  • 20 Hungry Piggies by Trudy Harris (Minneapolis, MN: Millbrook Pr Trade, 2006)

Music and Movement

Outdoor Connections

  • Go on an “observational hunt.” Give the children a list of items that they can observe outside. The list can include items that the children see (How many birds? How many cars pass?) or a list of things that they hear (car horns beeping, children screaming) and have them tally up the number of times that they see or hear each of the items on the list. Compare the tally marks when you get back inside.
  • Collect outdoor items and then tally up the number of items that have been collected. For a great autumn activity, collect different-colored leaves and then make a tally chart of all of the different leaves that the class has collected.

Web Resources

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