My 1st graders and 2nd graders have been adding numbers using ten frames, and our work has led me to make some observations. Ten frames are powerful tools for building the critical benchmarks of 5 and 10, but only if students are guided to understand and use the structure of the ten frame. If students are counting each counter or dot on a ten frame, they are not capitalizing on the power of the tool. Students should understand that if one row is filled, either the top or bottom, that row contains 5 and does not need to be counted. Likewise, if the entire ten frame is filled, it shows 10…without counting. These ideas are fundamental to moving children past counting by 1s and toward more sophisticated strategies, including counting on and decomposing numbers.
I discussed with the students that when a row is full, it’s five. They proved it by counting each counter. Yet each time the students needed to count counters greater than five, they still reverted to counting the top row by 1s. So we started practicing what I call a Fast Five. We run our finger along the top row and when we get to the end of the row, we say 5. Then we count on from 5. So to count the ten frame shown below, we’d say 5, 6, 7.
Now, each time my students start to count a full row by 1s, I ask them if they can use a Fast Five. It’s helping them break the habit of counting by 1s, and they’re getting much better at counting on. My 2nd graders are doing numbers greater than 10, so we do a Fast Ten as well.
So then a curious thing happened. We were doing a missing addend story. Sue had $4. She needed $10 to buy a gift. How much more money did Sue need to buy the gift? We had been practicing this type of problem, so the students put out 4 red counters and added yellow counters until they got to 10. I asked them how much money she needed, in other words, they had to count the yellow counters. They started counting them one by one. I asked if they could use a Fast Five. Every one of them ran their finger along the top row and started to count on the yellows in the bottom row. Whoa, now. I asked them to stop and think about where they saw a Fast Five. They quickly realized that the five was on the bottom row, not the top. So now we practice Fast Fives on both the top and bottom rows.
A great way to use ten frames is through quick flash routines. You can download your own set of quick flashcards by clicking here. Remember to not only ask what number the students see, encouraging the use of a Fast Five, but also how many more to make ten. As students grow in their understanding of 10, they will begin to recognize 7 because 3 squares are empty.