Tuesday, February 16, 2016

A Post About Counting Circles

     "Children need repeated exposure to and practice with counting sequences in order to become fluent with counting.  Counting sequences help children understand relationships between numbers and further develop their abilities to to apply these understandings to problem solving situations."

Jessica Shumway
Number Sense Routines, pg. 56

     This year, our PLC is digging into Jessica Shumway's wonderful book:

Thanks to my principal for finding room in the budget to order multiple copies.

    Comprised of teachers grades 1,2, and 3, we are on a mission to both critically examine our preexisting math routines and explore new possibilities.  We have tackled the Calendar and Counting the Days in School routines, as well as the Quick Image/Dot Card routines that are now a part of our Everyday Math curriculum.  Shumway's book has been an invaluable resource, providing background into learning trajectories and pedagogy as well as practical, how-to advice and student work examples. 
     Shumway devotes an entire chapter to counting routines.  These routines have been a part of our curriculum for many years, commonly used as the warm-up to a lesson.  But direction on implementation and usage is pretty vague, as illustrated by the following example from the grade 2 Teachers Manual:

    As Everyday Math vets we are also used to seeing children engage in counting routines in their journal work:

Can you spot the error?

    We asked ourselves some tough questions, using Shumway's book as a lens through which to view these routines with fresh eyes.  Were we using the routine in a thoughtful way?  Or were we just doing it because it was there?  Were we in fact even doing it at all, or did the routine often end up on the cutting room floor due to lack of time?  Were there ways we could make the routine more engaging?  More meaningful?
   Shumway offers a host of different ways to engage students in a counting routine.  (See here for more detailed explanations as well as a video clip of a counting circle in action.  Scroll down to #2, Counting Routines.) Counting circles where each class member adds to the count individually, choral counting, start and stop, whole class, small group, kinesthetic; Shumway explores many variations. She provides questions that help facilitate discussions about patterns, place value, number sense, and strategy.
    After a lively discussion, and after engaging in a counting circle of our own, the teachers were ready to give it a try:

Shumway emphasizes the importance of planning.   Kristin, after determining her second graders needed practice counting by 10s in three-digit numbers, sketched out her idea for recording the class count.  Different patterns will emerge depending on how the count is recorded.  She  decided to record vertically, starting a new column when the digit in the hundreds place changed to highlight this particular trouble spot.

She recorded the count, and asked the class, "What do you notice?"  The kids responded, and Kristin had the opportunity to reinforce concepts of place value in the changing numbers.  There are also opportunities to explore the different strategies individual students employ to add 10.

Also from grade 2.  Jane decided to have her class count backwards.  Counting backwards is often neglected.  Notice how she has elected to record the count horizontally.

Maggie, another grade 2 teacher, knows that her students will be asked to count by 25s on an upcoming progress check.  She uses the routine to solidify the concept and also as a formative assessment.

Nicole uses an interactive hundreds grid with her first grade class.  She often has her students do jumping jacks as they count.

Larissa, grade 4, wants in on the action:

She plans to have the class count by a fractional amount, and has some questions ready for her class to think about.

What do you notice?  What are you wondering?

     "Counting sequences," Shumway asserts, "Help children understand relationships among numbers and further develop their abilities to apply these understandings to problem-solving situations."  Proof of that came last week:

Shannon's third graders were working on this task...

...and realized that skip counting would help them find their way to a solution.  I felt this was a good example of a counting sequence application to a problem-solving situation.

Larissa's class collected data on the circumference of their heads...

...and then organized the data in a line plot.

Counting by 1/2s from 49 to 56.  A perfect grade 4 counting circle task.

     It's been fun to watch teachers experiment with this routine.  The only way to learn how to do it is to, well, do it!  It won't be perfect and it might get messy, but that's OK.  Do what works best for you and your students.  Here are some reflections based on my observations around the school

  • The teacher needs to be alert to student participation and engagement.  If the class is counting one at a time, once a child's turn is over, what will keep him paying attention to what's happening?  Conversely, if the class is counting chorally, the teacher needs to be aware of any students trying to hide behind more able classmates.  Those students would be good candidates for a small group counting circle.  
  • When conducting a counting circle, it is not uncommon for a student to get stuck.  Shumway outlines moves a teacher can utilize in this instance, but unless a class culture of support and encouragement is in place (something Shumway also addresses in her book and Sadie Estrella emphasizes in her counting circle Ignite talk), the moment can turn into one of embarrassment and anxiety for the student in question.
  • Planning is important.  What will you count by?  Where will you start?  How will you record the count?  What questions will you ask?  The more thoughtful you are, the more you will be able to get out of the routine.  And you will still be surprised by what students notice.  So be ready!
  • It's important to keep your eye on the clock, especially during the discussion time.  Student interest can start to flag, and while there still may be ground to cover, if students are not engaged then nothing worthwhile can be accomplished.  In other words, keep things moving!
  • Counting circle routines provide opportunities for students to employ practice standards.  Many students quickly realize that finding the emerging pattern that arises within the count will help them come up with the next number in the sequence, a good example of SMP 7 in action.  SMP 8 comes into play when the teacher asks questions like, "What number will the last person say?  How do you know?"
     As I've learned from hard experience (see here and here), there's more to counting than meets the eye. "Students who struggle with mathematics,"  writes Shumway, "Often lack counting skills." Shaky understandings about place value, underdeveloped abilities to recognize patterns, poor estimation skills, misguided notions about the way our number system is organized, the inability to think in additive and multiplicative ways; well planned and executed counting circle routines target all these areas, as well as promote critical thinking and problem solving skills.  What's not to like?



  1. My favorite quote (only because it is applicable to so many teaching/learning situations) from a post filled with favoriteable (?) quotes: "The only way to learn how to do it is to, well, do it! It won't be perfect and it might get messy, but that's OK." Good advice for math and life. Thanks again, Joe.

    1. Thanks Turtle. I worry sometimes that teachers won't experiment with things because they're afraid they might "do it wrong". The counting circle routine is a good example, like number talks, like estimation180, like WODB, like so much of the MTBoS, of something you just have to jump in and try and learn from experience what works and what doesn't. And messes can always get cleaned up, right?

  2. I was put onto a great little article by Dick Tahta about counting:


    You might like the last few paragraphs:

    Costing exercises, measure conversions, equivalent fractions, ratios and scales, rates and averages, perimeter problems, trigonometrical ratios ... the list almost entirely covers the secondary arithmetic syllabus. Teachers will recognise that these topics are related. But do students realise that they all tread the same water? What is the mathematical awareness behind all these forms? When - and how is it first acquired? How is it that after more or less ten years of practice in such isomorphic exercises, so many can still not perform them satisfactorily? Why is it precisely - that having covered one of them, the next manifestation is not immediately accessible? Is failure more often due to lack of concept - or is it due to lack of control?

    Well, it is easy enough to ask questions. But that's my present privilege! I repeat that counting forwards or backwards in uniform leaps might be seen as a natural and early example of linearity. Who would not be happy to work with a class which had mastered that, even if nothing else?

    "Starting at 1089, let's count backwards saying every seventh number". What, I would want to know, would be the point of doing any other number work with students who couldn't do that?

    1. Thanks Simon! The few paragraphs you quoted have got me hooked. It's funny that before this year I hadn't given counting all that much thought. Now it seems I'm heading down the counting rabbit hole...

    2. Thanks for this post Joe! It really helps clarify some of the smaller nuances of counting circles that maybe be overlooked. And thanks to Simon I'm chasing you down that same hole!

    3. Thanks Graham. It will be interesting for us to compare notes on the article Simon suggested.

  3. What is an appropriate length to let a counting circle plus discussion last? When does it become considered too long? When are we not letting them last long enough? If the students are seeming unengaged how do we draw them in, and make them interested in it?

    1. These are great questions, Stephanie. I would hesitate to put a hard and fast time limit on this routine. Much depends on your class dynamic, age of students, their ability to attend, etc. But I think that when you reach about 10 minutes, any whole class discussion can enter a danger zone (if it's not already there!) There may be some kids eager to continue to share their observations, and they can write them on post-its and stick them on the board for later consideration. Remember that if you do this routine on a regular basis, there will be plenty of opportunities to draw out content. You just have to experiment and see what works best for your class. I would encourage you to ask a colleague to come in and observe you doing the routine and get their feedback.
      It's hard to engage all students at all times. That's where a small group counting circle could be appropriate. Here you can further differentiate the count to be more geared for their ability level, either harder or easier.