Subitizing and Computation


This weekend I started to read a book on how the brain learns mathematics. The first chapter highlights the different ways people develop number sense. One of my takeaways came from a section related to subitizing.  Subitizing involves recognizing a number of items in a collection.  There are two types of subitizing that are communicated in the text: perceptual and conceptual.

Perceptual (glance and find the sum)

Perceptual Subitizing

Perceptual subitizing involves looking at a number of items and recognizing the number without much pause. Generally, the items are separate from each other and a quick glance will often reveal a correct answer.  Perceptual subitizing can remain fairly simple if the digits are close to zero. Larger amount of items often gives way for people to start counting each item. Counting individual items increases the amount of time it takes to find the total.

Group dots together, e.g. 3 groups of 4

Conceptual Subitizing

Conceputal subitizing is a bit different. This type of subitizing relies on the person to find patterns and use those spatial relationships to find a total. Grouping items together (such as 3 groups of 4) would fit into this category. Analyzing the spatial arrangement of the items can lend itself to people using conceptual subitizing.

I’m finding more and more that subitizing plays an important role in the early elementary grades. To a certain extent, I feel like students use subtilizing to quickly identify the number of dots on dominos and dice. Whether students use procedural or conceptual subtilizing depends on the number of dots and the arrangement of the pattern. Students that have a conceptual understanding of subitizing can group items to find sums. Grouping items together with spatial reasoning can lead students to discover additional computation strategies, such as splitting items into equal groups or constructing mental arrays. I see potential in using subtilizing strategies in the classroom.

While researching this topic I came across Steve’s subitizing page. Feel free to browse this amazing resource for more information and classroom resources.

Author: Matt Coaty

I've taught elementary students for the past 14 years. I enjoy reading educational research and learning from my PLN. Words on this blog are my own.

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