Math Teachers Should Encourage Their Students to Count Using Fingers

Note: This is a guest post by Aditya Singhal.

Remember when your parents used to scold you for using fingers for math? And we used to picture fingers in our minds while tying our hands at our backs. Resisting to use fingers was tough then. Why do we still instruct students to not use fingers when we know that we ourselves couldn’t resist using this technique?

Because it’s the established convention?

Visual Learning

Think of it this way. As of late, the importance of using visuals in teaching has been on the rise. Schools have been adopting smart class techniques to educate students in a visual way because visuals have been proven to stick around in pupils’ minds for longer. A study even claims that the human mind interprets visuals 60,000 times faster than text. Learning through visuals has been a successful paradigm shift in the world of education.

First Forms of Visuals

Now, what makes you think that fingers are not forms of visuals? Mathematics is one of the most struggled with subjects, especially in the initial phase when we learn how to count. Using visuals for teaching math is definitely a way of making this phase a little easier to survive. Fingers are the most easily accessible forms of visuals we can incorporate in mathematics studies.

Allowing our students to use fingers not only encourages them to count but can also be instrumental in teaching basic addition. Science blogs finds fingers an alternative to the much-used abacus and explains how fingers can be used to teach simple addition.

However, there is something that restricts you from allowing your students to use this simple technique. What’s that?

The Debate around the Finger Technique

The use of fingers in math classes has always been discouraged by teachers. The finger technique is considered to be a less intelligent way of counting and calculating. Most adults think of it as a technique that might hamper the developments of the kid’s brain and consider it to be a childish trick which renders answers but does not help in understanding.

Many schools across the world have banned the use of fingers in math class and this is a matter of major concern because by doing this, we are confining the scope of development of our students’ brains.

Contradictory Theories

A recent study published by the US government suggests that “finger representation and finger-based strategies play an important role in learning and understanding arithmetic.” This study explains why we, as kids, used to see a mental representation of fingers while counting when we were restricted from using fingers.

Another study published by US government states that the benefits of using fingers in math are evident a year later. Students who have a good knowledge of fingers in the first grade perform better in number comparison in the second grade. It has been discovered that if a 6- year-old kid learns finger perception and is able to represent his fingers effectively, he/she turns out to be better in mathematics, especially in counting and putting the numbers in order.

Not just that, there has been concrete evidence from studies proving that when students are trained on finger perception and representation and they turn out to be good in it, it results in higher mathematical achievement. Neuroscientists suggest schools to teach students about finger discrimination.This is a breakthrough study that suggests that the finger technique is useful in kids’ cognitive development.

Further supporting the study above, a Stanford professor, Jo Boaler, also published a study supporting the finger representation technique.  According to her research paper, there are neurological benefits of using fingers in math class. She claims that the use of fingers is key in teaching basic mathematics and results in higher mathematic IQ later on.

How to Calculate Using Fingers?

Nearly all kids learn how to count, and do simple addition and subtraction using their fingers. However, when they grow older, we discourage them to count on fingers, which is seen as a less intelligent way to think.

Here are some of the finger representation techniques that can be used to solve basic math problems.

Up to 10

We all know how to count up to 10 on fingers:

Counting using fingers

Up to 30

Many of us can count up to 30 using finger partitions:

Counting using fingers


Up to 99

Koreans use a method called Chisenbop Counting to count up to 99.

Put your hands on the table, palms down with thumbs towards each other – as if you are playing the piano. The fingers on the right hand represent the units, with the thumb representing number 5. The fingers on the left hand represent the tens, with the thumb representing number 50.

Here are some of the numbers represented in this manner:

Counting using fingers

Up to 10^10

An old Chinese method allows us to count up to 100,000 on one hand and up to 10,000,000,000 on two hands, touching the markers as required:

Counting using fingers

Multiplying by 6, 7, 8, 9 and 10

Counting using fingers


Hold your palms facing inwards, counting from bottom to top as 6 to 10. Now, touch the fingers of digits you want to multiply. Above, you can see finger number 8 touching finger number 7 to calculate 8×7.

Add the touching fingers and fingers below them. These are your tens. In the example, these add up to 5 (and will represent 50).

Now, multiply fingers on the left hand (above the touching fingers), with the fingers on the right hand (above the touching fingers). In the example, you will multiply 2×3 = 6.

Add the two, and you will get your answer (50+6 = 56).

Fingers as an Imaginary Abacus

See this video first:

These Indian kids use an old Asian technique where they use fingers as an imaginary abacus and operate it to perform more complex mathematical operations in just seconds.It takes

It takes time to master the technique but it has been found that even a visually impaired child can use it effectively. From multiplying strings of 10-digit numbers to finding the square root of a 6-digit number, the technique can help kids to do everything that we can do with an abacus. (The technique uses the Korean system of counting.)

UCMAS (Universal Concept Mental Arithmetic System) teaches this system. Started in 1993, it has a global network of more than 5,500 centres across 57 countries, and has trained millions of children already.Many leading universities such as Harvard, Stanford, University of California San Diego (UCSD), and

Many leading universities such as Harvard, Stanford, University of California San Diego (UCSD), and the University of Chicago in the USA; University of Khartoum in Sudan; and University of Manchester in the UK have researched the system– and have found it to be very helpful for children who are 4-13 years old.


You should not have any questions about incorporating highly worthwhile finger systems in your math class after exploring all these studies. Breaking the conventions isn’t easy but it is necessary at times. If you have come across this article, there shouldn’t be anything stopping you from taking this suggestion up and implementing it in your school.

Let’s take a step towards better education.

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  1. Tom July 20, 2016
  2. Thomas Tieke July 22, 2016
    • Antonio Cangiano July 22, 2016
  3. Steve Walker July 31, 2016

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