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The Trouble with Teens (as numbers not humans)

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


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