If you’re wondering what in the world this subitizing thing is all about you’re in the right place. The name makes it sound like a complicated skill, but you’ll be surprised at how easy it is to teach this early math concept to young children in your preschool, pre-k, or kindergarten classroom.
What is Subitizing?
Subitizing is the ability to instantly recognize “how many” in a small set. A perfect example of subitizing is dice; when you roll a dice and you see two dots on top, you instantly recognize it as representing a quantity of two. You don’t need to count each dot on the dice to figure it out, right?
The word subitize may sound very strange to some because it’s not a word that comes up often in daily conversation. It originates from the Latin word meaning suddenly, or “to suddenly recognize small quantities of a larger set without counting.”
Why is Subitizing Important in Preschool?
So, now you know what subitizing is, but you may still be wondering why you’re just hearing about this critical early math skill now.
Math researchers have identified the ability to subitize as an important part of developing basic number sense skills. They’ve discovered that when young children can see numbers in patterns, they also have stronger number sense skills overall.
Types of Subitizing
There are two components of subitizing; conceptual and perceptual.
- Perceptual subitizing is instantly recognizing how many are in a small set, usually up to 4 or 5.
- Conceptual subitizing is recognizing smaller groups within a larger set and adding those small groups together, such as two dots plus two dots equals four dots, or three dots and three dots makes six dots.
If you’re thinking that it sounds an awful lot like recognizing patterns, then you’d be right! When you teach young children how to subitize you’re also teaching them to recognize patterns.
Understanding “how many” without counting will help children:
- Count on from a known patterned set
- Combine numbers from sets
- Develop mathematical fluency
How to Teach Subitizing in Preschool
When it comes to teaching your students how to subitize, it’s important to start with perceptual subitizing. Your students will be more successful if you ask them to recognize smaller sets first, before moving on to the larger sets like 6 and up.
Conceptual subitizing is a more advanced skill which is learned after the perceptual skill.
Your big takeaway here is to teach your little learners how to subitize from 1-5 first, before moving on to larger numbers.
One of the games I use to practice subitizing is Quick Images from the math program Investigations. In this game you show cards with dot patterns quickly to the students in large group. The students have to identify how many dots they see without counting and hold up the corresponding number of fingers. This is a great game but it gets old when you play it all the time so I decided to make it thematic to spice things up.
Subitizing with Pumpkins
The pumpkins pictured above and the turkeys pictured below are small shapes purchased from the teacher store. I added magnetic tape to the back of the cards. When playing Quick Images with the students in large group I turn a magnetic cookie tray towards myself and arrange a few shapes on the tray, then I turn the tray towards the students briefly and they hold up the corresponding number of fingers.
Subitizing with Turkeys
Subitizing with Snowmen
The snowman and heart playing cards are from the Target Dollar Spot.
Subitizing with Hearts
Another way to incorporate subitizing skills into your daily routine is to play math games using dice. You can find lots of thematic math games using dice on the individual theme pages.
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