The counting stick is a very versatile tool for teaching maths to primary aged children. Whilst sometimes seen as a tool for teaching foundation and KS1 children, it still has many uses when teaching both lower and upper key stage 2 classes. I've included here a number of techniques that can be used across different types of numbers including decimals, fractions, percentages and negative numbers.

Counting forwards and backwards

The stick can be used simply to count forwards and backwards along the stick. Forward counting should be from left to right as the pupils are looking at it. This will be from the right hand side as the teacher holds the stick in front of him/her. You can split the stick in half to demonstrate where zero sits and then count down and up to include negative numbers. This technique is also useful for times tables and sticky notes can be placed on the stick to assist initially. They can then be removed as and when the children are comfortable with them.

Varying the pace

The teacher can change the pace at which the pupils count. If the counting task is challenging, slow counting will provide additional thinking time. The teacher can introduce a pause and continue counting or a position on the stick can be indicated by a marker (e.g. a piece of ribbon/string, elastic band, roll of sellotape) so that the pupils will know in advance where the pause or rest will happen and then count on to the end of the stick.

The hush stick

The ‘Hush’ stick combines counting aloud with counting silently. At the ‘hush’ number pupils continue counting but don’t say the hush number aloud

e.g. counting in 10’s

10, 20, 30, 40, hush, 60, 70, 80, hush, 100

The ‘hush’ can be indicated in a number of ways:

  • by using a marker to indicate the ‘hush’ position.
  • if using the stick as a number strip then touch the section with one finger instead of grabbing the whole section.
  • if using the stick as a number line then indicate a ‘hush’ position by touching the underside of the stick.

The boomerang stick

Put a marker at a position along the stick. Count up to the marker and back to the start again. This is useful when beginning to work on counting backwards.

The hiccup stick

The ‘Hiccup Stick’ combines counting forward and backwards. Counting takes place as usual until a ‘hiccup’ sound is heard. On the hiccup you count back to the previous number and then count on

e.g. counting in 2’s

2, 4, 6, 8, 10, hiccup, 8, 10, 12, etc.

Using whiteboards for responses

Instead of all pupils counting in unison tell the pupils the starting number and the interval for counting on and ask them to write on their whiteboards the number shown at the marker. The whiteboards can be replaced by "show me" cards based on teachers preference/age of the children.

A variation is to divide the class into two groups;

  • Group A supplies the number that comes just before the position marked.
  • Group B shows the number which comes just after the position marked.

Sometime you can allow pupils to choose the starting number and/or the interval in which to count on instead of the teacher always directing the activity.

So don't leave those counting sticks in the PPA room or at the back of the classroom collecting dust. They are really versatile teaching tools and, as you can see, can be used to engage the children and develop their mathematical thinking.


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