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by Nadine Cooke

Learning Teen Numbers can be Tough

Is your class or your child learning to count to 20? That’ll be easy…or not as easy as you think!

In fact, learning teen numbers is a real stumbling block for some children. They forget number names, reverse digit order, struggle to count backwards, or they may have an undiagnosed learning difficulty. Even after good instruction, when the rest of the class has understood and moved on, there will always be a small group of children for whom learning teen numbers is an ongoing issue and who urgently need our help.

To be fair, though. Teens in general are tricky to deal with. Should we be surprised??

While there is a school of thought that teachers could skip the numbers 11-19 until they have learned the much more sensibly constructed numbers beyond 20, I have to say, I like the challenge. And it can work. (Plus, it’s in the curriculum)

The teen number line up

Firstly, I will be referring to all the numbers 11-19 as teen numbers despite 11 and 12 not playing by the ‘teen’ name game. They are all composed of a ten plus a single digit (our place value system in action) so they qualify as teens even if they don’t want to be associated with the name (who can blame them ha-ha).

And there lies one of the first problems. The words for eleven and twelve in particular, bear little relationship to how any of the 1 to 10 numbers sound. Sure, twelve starts with a ‘t’ as in ‘two’ but that’s not a lot to go on. Then there’s thirteen and fifteen- similar, but not simple. And why is the ‘teen’ said last, anyway?

Vocabulary Acquisition

Acquiring new vocabulary is difficult enough, often needing between 17 and 50 exposures that are contextually meaningful before its committed to long term memory. That’s a big difference between exposures and leaves a lot of room for kids to come unstuck. When that vocabulary doesn’t relate to something meaningful for a child, indeed relates to something quite abstract, the challenge to commit this vocabulary to long term memory ramps up a notch.

Kindergarten children can usually subitise to 4 readily enough, higher if the numbers are arranged in familiar patterns, so those numbers tend to be easier to learn. They may know 6 from playing dice games. Not too hard. Small numbers relate more easily to countable units and are often linked to real things. 7,8 and 9 are often slower to memorise but 10 is often their friend. Is it because they carry 10 around with them as fingers? Funnily enough, they don’t seem to have trouble memorising a hundred, perhaps because they know it represents something big and exciting!

Assuming they know their numbers to 10, it’s time to tackle the teens.

Visual Representations: When ten frames aren’t always the best

When learning teen numbers, it’s important to link the numeral to the quantity, and to show that teens can be made with a ten and ‘some more’. Finding the best way to represent that quantity visually is important.

Ten frames are an excellent way to represent teen numbers, but for my struggling students and for all those early number learners, it is actually quite difficult to visualise the 10 because it is not subitizable (until they are very used to it). They can take a long time to be convinced of its 10-ness and I’ve watched them count, count and recount, unable to make the leap that there are ten. It isn’t fair to say, “you’ve already counted it, it’s 10; trust me, I’m a teacher, it’s always 10”. It’s better when they trust it because they can see it themselves.

That’s why I like using Ten Trays, where the ten is arranged in the dice pattern of 5 and 5 (like a Hungarian ten frame). Children more easily see that 10 represented this way is definitely 10. There is much less recounting. They trust the 10 so are more confident counting on (a whole new skill they need to master). Ten Trays do seem to build teen number awareness faster than ten frames for some children. Establishing visual imagery for ten allows the child to construct and read teen number amounts more quickly. It’s a small detail, but I really find it helps with those children you notice counting and recounting a ten frame. Don’t throw ten frames out! Just use them carefully with struggling learners.

I see it, I know I know it…but what’s it called again?

When it comes to 11, 12, 13 … there is little in a child’s young life that attaches significant meaning to those numbers that can be used as an anchor for the name. They hear ‘eleven’ and for a moment it is attached to a couple of straight lines, a 10 and 1 more, but then it slips from mind … what even is an eleven? Can I see it? Can I touch it? Do I need that word when I play or talk to my friends? What was it again?

Because those trickier teen names were just refusing to be learned, yet the kids themselves were ready to use those numbers in interesting ways, I wanted to speed up the memorisation process. So, I wrote the Tricky Teen song which gives them a tool to ‘decode’ the number when they see it. Plus, if they watch it enough, it helps with those repeated exposures. It doesn’t teach place value, but without knowing the number name, teaching place value usually falls on deaf ears. It’s hard to learn meaningfully when you are scratching your head wondering what to call that numeral or trying to guess which number the teacher is referring to, all the while paralysed by the fear of being asked to give an answer for a number name you just CAN NOT remember!!! Now, when someone forgets the number name, everyone is happy to sing the song together, tensions dissipate and that scared little learner feels safe again.

Tell a story, create a culture

For young kids, larger number names don’t attach easily to anything real and therefore lack memorability. Picking up new vocabulary for objects they see, ideas they are thinking and talking about, is easier because they have the motivation to learn, and the words relate to something concrete they can pin meaning to. Hello long term memory. That’s why I like reading stories where numbers are involved mainly because it shows context for numbers (beyond those easy ones) and provides a springboard for discussion and further exploration. Now, if I see a teen number written with the 1 in front, I remind everyone of the time Percy had a baking disaster. Why was there a disaster? Because he forgot that teen numbers always have a 1 in the front, everyone cries. Sure enough, the learner who made the mistake, quietly fixes it up. No embarrassment, no big deal. Numbers are part of our creative culture. Stories put number vocabulary learning into the realm of entertainment. That’s memorable.

The lifeline of a song

Kids love music and patterns. They sound like they can count before they can actually count because they’ve memorised a lovely string of sounds that gets endless praise when belted it out for proud parents While it isn’t classified as true counting, it is a precursor and can be used to help them find a number name, but only if they run through the entire sequence to get there. Asking them to dive into that sequence to pull out a single number name requires a much bigger effort. At this point, their memory for a song is stronger than the memory for the word to numeral match. Let’s work with that. They can use the scaffold of a number song to give them the confidence to answer the question staring at them on the page or in the activity centre! They can sing forward and find what they are looking for. Their reliance on the song won’t last forever, but the feeling of embarrassment when they can’t answer an ‘easy’ number question might.

A backward song takes pressure off the struggling child who desperately wants to give the correct answer when the teacher says it’s their turn to count backwards from 20. The fact that they can link each number in the song to a numeral is a sign they are headed in the right direction for understanding. If a child has a specific learning difficulty in mathematics, counting backwards is always going to be hard. Give them the gift of a memorable song to help them out… as well as a number line!

So much to learn so little time (but it will take time)

There’s a lot to learn before you can really say that you’ve mastered the numbers to 20 and a class full of kids is going to be at all different stages of growth, which is why I created a skills set just for the numbers 11-20.

Teen Number Skills Checklist

To make your life easier, I’ve compiled a list of competencies/targets that you may find helpful when teaching numbers to 20. Our goal is that all children achieve confidence in and mastery over numbers to 20…at some time. Not in one week. Perhaps not in a term but by the end of the kindergarten year would be ideal (Don’t panic, Year 1 kids often need revision with teens). This skills list may help you identify areas a child is struggling with so that you can provide (or organise) extra, targeted support. You can also create your own checklist using your region's Mathematics curriculum.

Don’t forget, on the way to achieving each competency, smaller accomplishments can be noted (and celebrated). For example, where a target is for the child to recognise numbers to 20, they may know 14-19 but struggle with remembering 11,12, 13 and 20. You can break the targets down into smaller parts or keep notes in the comments.

Not all children need to check off every competency to prove their teen worth. Nor do they need to proceed through the list in order. But I find this list a handy reference. It lets me know where the children are at and where they are heading. I can keep track of their achievements or highlight aspects that need extra support or intervention. I also like to add the activities that match each target into a separate column so that I end up with an extensive list of activities I know the kids will love.

Teen Teaching Toolkit

There is a wealth of resources available to teach teen numbers and I imagine you are already using some great ones. But if you would like to try a different way to engage your kids, with animals, singing, stories and cookie filled Ten Trays, have a look at these educational offerings from Spot Maths. By adding these to your teaching toolbox, you’ll make learning fun. Just like kids, we can get tired of using the same resources time and again, so something new, that’s already been aligned to the curriculum, might be what you are looking for.

The great news is that the songs and stories are completely free! If you know your children would love to see more of the animals, play games with a difference and complete creatively styled activity sheets, then the downloadable resources are there waiting for you.

Now about that free downloadable Teen Number Skills Checklist I mentioned earlier. You can download that and a some other helpful activities to teach teen numbers when you join Spot Maths. Click here to get the whole Teen Bundle for free.

Let me know if it helps.

Happy Mathsing


When you are looking for ways to help young children learn to count or to get them ready for maths at school...Here are 25 activities for kids to help them learn how to count using some catchy counting songs that raise engagement, energy levels and provide plenty of happy maths feelings.

And remember, early math skills are the strongest predictor of later success in school, so it's worth getting kids engaged and understanding.

Why use Counting Songs?

Songs are a great way to introduce our counting system to young kids, especially to those for whom counting is a challenge. Singing releases feel-good endorphins, reduces stress, increases blood flow, and builds group cohesion. And while you are feeling all warm and fuzzy, your neural network is firing and ready to learn. What a perfect way to introduce, consolidate and revise counting with kids. Counting songs provide that positive emotional connection with learning which is so essential to motivation and success.

Songs can make it easier to embed the counting sequence into long term memory (perfect for anyone with a learning difficulty), they increase children’s number vocabulary (big vocabulary, big school success), model one to one correspondence of objects and numeral matching.

There are Many Steps to Counting Success

Now reciting a counting song doesn’t equate to deep conceptual understanding of our number system, but it is a valuable first step. From repeating a string of sounds to isolating words, to matching words to numerals, to quantities, to cardinality, to conservation, abstraction, magnitude, unitizing…successful counting is a huge undertaking.

But you’ve got to start somewhere, and by linking the songs with the counting actions, kids are on their way to real understanding.

What if my voice scares small dogs?

Rest assured, you don’t have to be a contender for The Voice to use counting songs effectively at home, prep or school. Just your enthusiasm and a desire to instil joy into children’s learning lives. View my counting song clips . They will help you learn the tunes and prove that you definitely don’t have to be a brilliant singer to have fun with numbers.

11 to 20 Counting Song: count from 1 to 20 with a strong focus on counting forwards and backwards from 11 to 20. Great for consolidating tricky teen numbers.

Count to 120 Maths Song for Kids: This song skips quickly over 1 to 20 and gets stuck into the numbers from 20 to 120. Follow Percy the Sugar Glider as he counts his steps to the bush picnic. You’ll wish you were there.

I’ve also included a few tips at the end.

25 Terrific Ways

to use counting songs with kids

Sing and Step

1. As you sing, take a step for each number. Small step/small voice, large step/loud voice. Climb stairs, walk throughthe house, along the corridor,around the park. Step on numbered spots or chalk marks. Step on the numbered squares as you sing but be on the lookout for numbers out of sequence! Someone might have mixed them up!!

2. Roll out a long strip of paper (tape together pages of newspaper, butcher’s paper, recycled catalogues…) and get a towel ready to wipe dirty feet. Walk through mud or into some paint then see how far in the counting song you can get before the mud/paint disappears. The last number counted matches the number of footprints!

3. Dunk feet into a bucket before walking along a dry path.How many steps in the song can you sing before there are no more watery prints?

4. At the beach, how many steps in the song can you sing before your feet get rushed by wave? How many scoops of sand can you add to your castle before it gets hit by a wave?

5. Kids line up side by side and link hands. Can they move forward in a straight line as they step out each number? Walk backwards for the backwards count.

Sing it loud

6. Nominate a conductor to lead the singing. They will direct the others to sing loud, medium or soft depending on their arm signals. Alternatively, grab some toy animals and label them loud, louder, loudest (better still soft, softer, softest). When the conductor points to the animal, the group must sing accordingly. This is a nice tie in with the language of comparison. You could use big, bigger and biggest toys.

Sing it with fingers

7. With the positive link between finger use and mathematics established, you are helping your learners enormously when you get those fingers dancing their way through the sequence. It’s harder to involve the toes when you’re on the way to 20, so why not join with a partner and use both sets of hands to show fingers to 20?

8. Some children struggle to connect fingers with counting so the more practise the better. Try putting numbered stickers on your child’s fingers (and teen numbers on their toes). One child can point while the other holds up their fingers and toes. Everyone can sing!

Move and Sing

9. While singing, count out objects for each number name. Start by counting objects then images on a page then numbers in a number track. Cars in a car park?

10. Dance a toy along a number track or number path as they sing forwards and backwards.

11. Write the number sequence on a set of pages (one number per page) and tape around the room/outside. Start singing the counting song then stop. Children run to the next number in the song.

12. Lay the numbers on the ground and sing your counting song from beginning to end. Remove one number and sing again. Either stay silent on that number or shout out the missing number. Take away different numbers each time. Alternatively, turn all the numbers over so they cannot be seen and sing while they move from stepping stone to stepping stone (aka number). When the music stops, they have to say the number that is under their feet. Ask them to draw the number in the air before turning it over.

13. Count everything from pegs to pasta, pebbles to petals. When they see you touch a different item for each word, it will help them differentiate units of meaning (words) within the singing string. Encourage them to touch/move only one item per number. Young children will need help with this as they love to point to lots of items as the mood takes them

Flick it Good

14. Line up the target number of objects (marbles, dried beans, bottle caps, small collectible toys you have no use for). As you sing, give each object the flick with your fingers and send it flying. Place a bucket as a target. Extra maths when you can count how many made it in the bucket compared to how many didn’t.

Create a Stir

15. Next time you are baking, use the counting song to count the number of stirs you need to combine all the ingredients. The Counting to 120 Song is great, but hopefully it won’t take that many stirs…if it does, I think you need a Mixmaster.

16. Create a whirlpool in a bowl by stirring the water 20 times as you sing. When it comes to counting/stirring backwards, watch out for the splashes as the water suddenly changes direction.

17. Once you have sung up a speedy whirlpool with all your singing, drop in some torn paper and count how many times it circles the bowl before stopping.

Sing it back

18. Learn the sequences backwards. When I learned French, I thought I’d mastered the numbers to 10 but when the teacher asked me to say them backwards, I stumbled and stopped and started from ‘une’ until I found the number I needed. It was clear I had not mastered the number names. So, I put the backward sequence to a nursery rhyme and sang my way to understanding. Backwards counting challenges a rote learned string of number words, and forces you to truly know your numerals. The song makes it all so much easier. And so much less stressful.

It’s a writeoff

19. When learners know the symbols for each number, set a new challenge. Try writing or typing the numbers as you sing them. This could be very tricky so you might have to dial the tempo down so everyone can finish writing. Slo-mo singing can be quite amusing.

(If they struggle to identify 11,12,13 and 15, watch this)

Skip and Sing

20. Time for some skipping. How far can you skip through the skipping song? (I would not get very far)

21. Can you skip in reverse for the backwards sequence?

22. If skipping is a challenge, try star jumps. hops or spins. Great as a singing brain break.

23. Lay out a set of number cards within easy reach. Sing and say the numbers. Turn a number card over and sing again. Be sure to point at the upside-down card as you sing. Keep turning down cards as you sing until the child can sing and point to every card.

Hike and Sing

24. When your learner is ready to count to 120, get out the hiking gear and sing along to The Count to 120 song before heading bush and counting your own 120 steps. Where will you end up? Pack your own picnic with a handful of toy friends who can celebrate successful counting with you.

Change it Up

25. Listen to the Count to 120 song which shows Percy the sugar glider counting his steps through the bush to the picnic. As you sing the song, change movement styles as each decade passes. So for the 20s step sideways, the 30s crab crawl, 40s giant steps, 50s mini steps, 60s backwards steps, 70s hopping, 80s jumping, 90s lunges, 100s skipping steps, 110s knee raisers.


  • Pay attention to teen numbers so they hear ‘teen’ clearly. Very often this gets confused with ‘ty’ endings resulting in 13 being confused with 30.

  • Stick with counting to 10 forwards and backwards until it’s as easy as ABC (or easier). If your learner is ready, count your way to 20. These are hard number names for young ones so don’t be disappointed if they can’t remember them. Just keep the singing about enjoyment…and counting cool things. You are setting up positive associations with numbers and that is one of the best ways you can help your child with mathematics.

  • Unless your child is super keen to learn, don’t worry about teaching the numerals beyond 10 before they go to kindergarten. They are at the early stage of math development where it is enough to know number names. The rest will come at the next level of learning. In fact, don’t despair if your child hasn’t learned the numerals to 10 before they start school. They will learn all about them in kindergarten. But if they are super keen …. get singing and learning. If they are ready, make sure you are ready! And preschool maths ability is a good indicator of future academic success!

Hopefully this has given you a few ideas that help you teach your children how to count in a fun and engaging way. It’s the start of a complex counting journey that you can have such a positive impact on. Making maths fun and educational is what Spot Maths is all about.

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