Have you ever heard a young child having difficulty co-ordinating their words and actions when counting out objects? At the age of five most children can demonstrate one-to-one correspondence; however, for children with primary language disorder (PLD) this foundational mathematical skill can be significantly delayed.  Worryingly, the ability to count with reliable one-to-one correspondence is an important predictor of future mathematical ability (Passolunghia, Vercelloni, & Schadee, 2007). The Early Childhood team at The Glenleighden School is currently scouring the research literature to find answers to where these difficulties emanate from. Here are some initial findings…

Fazio  (1994) outlines two hypothesis. Firstly, poor language abilities may affect a child’s recall of number words as well as memory for the strict sequential order that is required for counting. Unlike other conversational words where children can get by with a reduced vocabulary, there are no alternatives when counting – number words mean something specific and their order is non-negotiable.  Fazio’s second hypothesis is that children with PLD may not understand the basic concept of what a number means; they don’t, for example, get the ‘threeness’ of three. After all ‘three’ may variously refer to three books, three sounds, three minutes,  the number three in a telephone sequence or even an abstract concept such as three wishes.

Counting-1-1024x768 Counting-2-1024x768

The use of gesture, being it by pointing or touching  objects being counted, also plays an important role in learning to count (Alibali & DiRusso, 1999). It helps to break up the meaningless ‘string’ of a number count (onetwothreefour…) into meaningful chunks, (one, two, three, four…). More specifically using fingers to represent ‘how many’ may build a bridge between children’s innate understanding of number and the outward expression of this. It may even go further, influencing how numbers are processed in the brain itself.  The part of the brain that deals with number is immediately adjacent to the part that looks after finger dexterity. People of nearly every culture in the world, literate or non-literate, use fingers in some way when counting indicating there may be an innate link between the two. To further support the link between maths and fingers, recent studies have found that the ability to identify which finger is being touched while being blindfolded is a powerful predictor of numerical ability (Gracia-Bafalluy & Noël, 2007).

The Early Childhood team is hoping to draw on this fascinating research to build a program that will support our students. Keep watching this space!


Eduarda Van Klinken

Early Childhood Teacher – The Glenleighden School


Alibali, M. W., & DiRusso, A. A. (1999). The function of gesture in learning to count: more than keeping track. Cognitive Development, 14(1), 37-56.

Fazio, B. (1994). The counting abilities of children with specific language impairment: a comparison of oral and gestural tasks. Journal Of Speech And Hearing Research, 37(2).

Gracia-Bafalluy, M., & Noël, M.-P. (2007). Does finger training increase young children’s numerical performance? Cortex, 44(4), 368-375.

Passolunghia, M. C., Vercelloni, B., & Schadee, H. (2007). The precursors of mathematics learning: Working memory, phonological ability and numerical competence. Cognitive Development, 22(2), 165-184.



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