Finger counting by young kids has traditionally been frowned upon because it’s seen as babyish and a deterrent to using mental calculations. However, a new Swiss study in the Journal of Cognitive Psychology has found that six-year-olds who finger counted performed better at simple addition, especially if they used an efficient finger counting strategy. What’s more, it was the children with higher working memory ability – who you would expect to have less need for using their fingers – who were more inclined to finger count, and to do so in an efficient way. “Our study advocates for the promotion of finger use in arithmetic tasks during the first years of schooling,” said the researchers Justine Dupont-Boime and Catherine Thevenot at the Universities of Geneva and Lausanne.
The 84 child volunteers were recruited from six different Swiss schools where the policy is not to teach finger counting explicitly, but not to discourage it either (except for very simple additions where the sum is less than 10).
The researchers tested the children’s working memory using the backward digit span task, which involves hearing a string of numbers and repeating them back in reverse order. Children with higher working memory can accurately repeat back longer strings.
The researchers also videoed the children discreetly while they performed, one child at a time, simple single-digit additions, some a bit trickier than others because they involved sums larger than 10 (some kids did the addition task before the memory tests, others afterwards). The researchers later coded the videos to see which kids counted on their fingers during the addition task, and which strategy they used.
Fifty-two of the children finger counted, and there was a significant correlation between finger counting and better performance (for the easier and harder sums), and also between finger counting and higher working memory ability. The researchers think kids with poorer working memory struggle to discover finger counting for themselves, even though it would be advantageous if they used the right strategy.
A problem for those kids with lower working memory ability who did finger count is that they tended to use a more laborious strategy that involves counting out both addends (i.e. numbers to be added) on their fingers, whereas the children with higher working memory ability favoured an efficient strategy that only involved using the fingers to count on from the first addend – for example, for 8+3, the child would only use three fingers to count on from eight. When the kids with lower working memory used the laborious finger strategy, they actually performed worse than if they used no fingers, especially for the harder sums. However, if they used the superior strategy, they did better at addition than those who didn’t use their fingers.
“Explicitly teaching lower achievers to use the [more efficient finger counting] strategy could be very beneficial for them,” the researchers said, adding that “… repeatedly using fingers to solve arithmetic problems should allow children to progressively abandon this strategy for more mental procedures and, thus, allow children to become more and more performant through practice.”
The new findings build upon a previous study that tested five-year-olds’ addition skills repeatedly over a three-year period and which found that finger counting correlated with superior performance up to, but not beyond, age 8.