What is Subitizing in math? Why is it important?

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It is a common observation that kids are always trying to find the exact numbers of objects lying in a group. This is the basic premise where the number skills grow. Even before starting to count, the kids know how to estimate or know what is more, or what is less. This ability to give a rough figure of the numbers of objects (say a number of dots in a block or a dice surface) is called Subitizing.

Thus, to elaborate, subitize is to guess the number of countable objects without actually counting them one by one. Just like you read the words by sight, at the start (read sight words), without realizing actually reading them, letter for letter, you tell the numbers of objects by skipping the counting them one by one. Thus, to subitize means to guess almost correctly. The experts also call this activity estimating and find it to be coming from a developed number sense.

Why subitizing is essential and when should it be introduced?

Subitizing helps children develop a better understanding of numbers and their underlying meaning. Children tell ‘how many’ in a blink when they subitize. (source: A Study Subitizing: What Is It? Why Teach It? by Douglas Clements, University of Denver). Thus, you make children ‘quantity intelligent’ when you encourage them to guess the amount by sight.

Subitizing is essential, here is why!

As a math beginner, children are expected to be conversant with numbers. Counting is a way to acquire number skills. Even before attaining counting proficiency comes the subitizing part. Children can be given a block having four bird images and the other one with 5 or six bird images. When they are asked to subitize, they will tell by sight which block has more bird images. So, what does it tell about a child’s intelligence? It tells that a child’s mind can understand quantity. Thus, subitizing proves to be an essential skill to teach as it offers:

  • Learning of the conceptual part of numbers
  • Understanding of separating more from less
  • Builds foundational number sense
  • Allows applying the concept of numbers in a tangible manner
  • Allows forming the numbers from units and breaking them back to units
  • Enables doing calculations faster
  • Builds a premise for learning pattern recognition.
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What researches tell about the importance of subitizing

In the research paper, ‘Subitizing and Mathematics Performance in Early Childhood’, Peabody Research Institute, USA, the authors have tried to summarize how researches have put forth the role of subitizing in number learning or number sense development in the early education stage.

Similarly, many other references to the researches have been made regarding the role of subitizing in the math intelligence building, which are:

1. Children belonging to 3-4 years of age group subitize faster, and tell exact quantities within 120ms. Thus, it hints at the role of subitizing in building number fluency in early learners. (Chi & Klahr, 1975).

2. The subitizing accuracy develops while moving from age 3 to age 4. It shows that subitizing improves with better familiarity with numbers. (Wouldn’t a 4-year old have practiced numbers 365 days more than a 3-year old?), (Starky and Cooper, 1995)

3. Subitizing builds a primer for coming to terms with more complex number relationships like grouping and sequencing

4. Subitizing develops counting abilities and helps children pick different strategies to arrive upon a solution. (Gray and Reave, 2014).

Means, when asked to subitize, the children may divide the numbers, say 6 of them, into 3 and 3, or 2 and 4, or 5 and 1, and so on. Thus, they work up their brain as per the comfort and produce answers by calculating mentally with the help of subitizing abilities.

Hence, considering subtizing as a basic skill to improve better math literacy in kids is not a whimsical approach of a teacher, but is a well-thought strategy. It proves to be a proven tool for building confidence in kids for number learning. By using subittizing, teachers help kids remove math scare surrounding the learning and absorbing of more complex number relationships and operations. So, let’s take a look at various strategies teachers can employ to introduce subtizing to kids and make them aware of their estimation abilities.

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Best teaching tools to develop subitizing abilities in children

1. Use Dice Activities

dice activity for subitizing

Dice is the most trusted subtizing teaching tool that have been around us since ages. Because it contains very few dots on each surface, it becomes easy for the children to demonstrate subtizing skills using these. So, you can play dice games as a part of teaching strategy to introduce children to the art of subtizing.

2. Use Dominoes

dominoes for subitizing

Another interesting strategy is to use dominoes to accustom children with subtizing. You can start by putting the dominoes face down, and then flip them over. Ask the kids to tell the number of dots in almost a blink. You can further strengthen their confidence by creating a number line and ask them to place the dominoes on it corresponding to the number these show.

3. Dots charts

You can create various kinds of charts. In a few, you make the blocks of the dots in an organized manner; in others, you draw them randomly. Studies also show that the organized array and the one not made difficult by introducing interruptions are easy to subitize. So, the next level of proficiency lies in subitizing correctly even when the distractions coupled with unorganized grouping are there.

4. Classic deck of cards

Cards are cool always! These have a specific pattern in the presentation of the suits’ signs too. So, when the children have just started with numbers, they find an easy resource for trying subitizing on these. As a teacher, you can hide the number portion as well, if the kids know reading numbers. So, ask them to recognize quantity just by sight. You may double the challenge by asking them to make a series, too, of the cards they guessed.

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Best applications of subitizing

Having gathered information about the teaching tools, lets’ take a look at the math skills where subitizing helps, and offers good learning support:

1. Number sense building – Develop foundational or conceptual number sense in early math learners

2. Math reasoning like quantitative reasoning – Develop learning to tell less from more

3. Developing counting skills – Move from estimating to finding exact number

4. Develop estimation and probability finding skills – At the early education stage, you will be introduced to estimation; at higher levels, while learning probability, you are most likely to employ your subitizing skills and recall its learning.

5. Develop base for numerical operations – By use of grouping the numbers and making various combinations to arrive upon the total of dots on a block, children are actually building a base for learning addition and subtraction operations.

Wrapping up,

When is the right time to introduce subitizing? Well, the right time to introduce subitizing is kindergarten level. Since many children struggle to read and recognize numbers at this level and are in process of building number recognition skills, the subitizing proves its relevance quite significantly. It does prepare children to move to building better number literacy and relating the number they read with the quantity they learned about by subitizing. Even in a later stage, this art of guessing stays with the kids and help them attain fluency with advanced math skills.


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