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how to teach a person numbers, arithmetic, mathematics


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This is the introductory page to the how to teach a person number, arithmetic, mathematics suite of pages, for guiding those teaching first learners basic arithmetic concepts and skills. It is part of the series of documents about fundamental education at
These pages are a sub-set of
sums will set you free
how to teach a person number, arithmetic, mathematics on teaching reading

First, a word of warning: I have no doubt that there are literally thousands of web pages and sites aimed at teaching basic arithmetic. This series of pages is something entirely different. It is designed to lay down empirically sound foundations and to emphasise the widespread weaknesses in teaching mathematics abroad in this society. These pages are are not designed to duplicate what may be easily obtained elsewhere in books, in class rooms and on the Net. They are designed as a corrective to poor instruction.

Children can be taught to count before they can read, just as they learn learn to talk before they can read or write. Thus, I am starting these guides to basic arithmetic in the context of a pre-literate person, and treating the reading and writing of numbers separately.

Most seriously numerate people can do a great deal with just the four basic operations of addition, subtraction, multiplication and division, drawing up necessary methods (formulae, or even tricks). It is often common that such people manage with a very basic cheap calculator, rather than a fancy device with all manner of almost random formulae; just as in days of yore any self-respecting engineer would carry a slide-rule as a badge of office, just as a medic carries a stethoscope.

With anything complicated, a mathematician will now tend to start with scribbling on a table napkin and then transfer an outline to a computer program. If the task is at all complicated, that program will tend to undergo continual modification.

So these basic operations are a very great deal of the foundation of numeracy. It is important to make these foundations secure and rational. This requires practice and the gradual learning of many short cuts. It is also vital that understandings are founded securely in the real world at every step. A very great deal of maths teaching is not founded in this manner and is taught in vague and even incorrect abstractions.

I abhor the common way of teaching mathematics, as a meaningless dogma with parroted rote rules (or formulae, in the jargon). My view of mathematics is that it should be used to teach useful mental methods that can be applied profitably to the real world. Otherwise put, mathematics is about ways to think and, thus, is highly related to reasoning (‘logic’).

Of course, no five-year-old will be expected to follow this with the mind of an experienced adult, but the more you know and the more background you have, the more easily you will be able to understand the concepts that the child is learning. The important idea here is to grow the experience, which is the foundation for understanding the different ideas involved.

The correctives are often difficult for people who have been taught in a sub-optimal manner. These problems are dealt with in great detail around Where I think it appropriate, I have put links to relevant discussion. It may not be necessary for your purposes to dig in this deep, unless you become interested, or are teaching as a profession. Here are a couple of useful places to start if you wish to have a look at that area: Laying the foundations for sound education and Why Aristotelian logic does not work.

Marker at

You will find some things, such as the educational maths counter, on more than one page. This is because I intend that the pages stand alone as far as is efficient. More generalised information can be found on this introductory page.

Note that yellow, underlined links will take you to associated pages at, while blue links are to other parts of the same page.

developing young minds

Be patient and remember the brain is a physical object which actually changes during the child’s learning. That process involves nerves making new physical connections, and this process takes time. Thus, constantly repeated, fairly short learning sessions, followed by time to let the brain get on with its growing, are an integral part of learning.

In this context, it is also important that the child learns to concentrate. Without concentration, memories will tend not to be laid down permanently (physically); only a short-term retention will occur, such as when you memorise a phone number before transcribing it to paper or organiser (only to be forgotten by the morrow).

In doing long and complex calculations, some learners can take delight (and satisfaction) in performing the multiplications and subtractions needed to complete the sub-sums. Other learners may become frustrated or overwhelmed. It is normal for humans to make regular errors when transcribing in detailed calculations, just as you will find mis-spellings even in the most rigorously edited books.

“Let him [the abbot] so temper all things that the strong may have something to strive for and the weak have nothing to dismay them.”

If it happens that orders are given to a brother which are too heavy or impossible, let him receive the order of his superior with perfect gentleness and obedience. But if he finds that the weight of the burden is altogether beyond his strength to fulfil, then let him explain to his superior the reasons why he cannot do it, patiently at a suitable time, without showing any pride or resistance or contradiction. Then, after his representations, if the superior remains firm in requiring what he has ordered, let the subject realise that it is better so, and out of charity, trusting in the help of God, let him obey .”
[The rule of Saint Benedict for monasteries]

Good teaching is not simple.

on teaching and learning maths

There is a difference between maths as often taught and how maths is taught at
The first is similar to learning the language by rote, that is like learning Latin responses to priests. seeks to develop an understanding of the language.

Learning chess, cricket, snooker and other games is common. It’s a matter of learning arbitrary definitions and rules, and such learning is often enthusiastic.

Maths is not much different. Much of maths is a clear way of communicating about realities.

The way maths is widely taught is as a language without context. It would be like learning English without meanings - learning ‘the cat sat on the mat’ with no idea what a mat, a cat, or a sat meant.

So ‘add five oranges to three oranges’ is much better than ‘what is 5 + 3?’.

There are many forms of kitchen table. A child learns to form a statistical universal (called ‘table’) from their experience of language usage.

‘Two’ means ‘it’ and ‘it’. ‘One’ becomes a synonym for ‘it’. Dopes babble about ‘abstracts’ instead of explaining ‘it’ clearly.

‘Oranges’ is an abstract. That is, it is not this orange in front of you; it is perhaps those oranges still in the supermarket, or some oranges still on a tree in Spain. This understanding of abstraction is something to introduce while teaching.

Having determined by experiment that 5 oranges added to 3 oranges give 8 oranges, the learner can add 5 apples to 3 apples and observe that the sum is 8 apples. That is, by trying it out and seeing if it works; by counting, using the ordered grunts known as numbers.

In time, the learner will understand that adding any five objects to any three objects will result in a collection of eight objects, just as they ‘know’ a table when they see one. This is in the same way we know apples fall from trees and call it ‘gravity’.

As a pragmatist, after seeing enough incidences, I am prepared to treat experience as a belief until empiricism shows me a situation that breaches the belief.

I translate ‘the same’ as ‘similar enough that I don’t care about the difference right now’. Numbers are real in the individual’s head, and they are a pragmatic means of communication.

Every use of ‘one’or ‘apple’ is new in the real world. These are formed/learned statistical universals.

methodology and examples

What we will do on these pages, is show various methods of doing the same sort of sum, so that the learner will start to understand what is involved with each sort of sum, rather than just learning rules by heart.

Teaching in parrot lockstep, with rigid rules, does the opposite from showing a learner how to understand different situations. It may let learners go through doing sums like a parrot and achieve the right answer, but the result is that the learners do not understand what is going on, why they have the answers they do, and cannot apply the mathematical tools to other situations.

On these pages, you will be given basic methodology and necessary examples. You will not be provided with hundreds of examples, those you will have to make up as you work with the learner, adjusting those examples according to the person’s problems. Some examples should be interspersed which are easy for the learner, in order to reinforce and to give experience of success, while others should be aimed at specific difficulties.

It is simple to make up examples appropriate to your current teaching objectives, checking the answers with a calculator.

As you will see, there’s a great deal of stuff to absorb here, especially if you are three, four or five, or even eight, nine or ten. Human understanding evolves, the human absorbs and gradually organises the vast streams of information coming from those small holes called ears and eyes.

For example, becoming used to and seeing clocks of different types lays grounds for understanding what the shapes and numbers mean. Trying to rush these processes leads to stress and often to confusion - not good.

Letting the child run wild, without any help or guidance, leaves them struggling to adapt to a civilisation and culture that has taken thousands of years to develop, and which is now running in over-drive. It is every bit as foolish to leave a person in confusion as it is to feed information too quickly and hammer it in with a mallet.

The purpose of mathematics is to understand patterns and logic, to help you organise the filing system in your head. Mathematics is not something esoteric, but there is rather a lot of it! The sane objective of learning is not to memorise enormous lists by rote, it is to teach organised ways of thinking about problems, and where and how to research for relevant information in the ever growing data banks of human experience (knowledge).

Other good advice will be interspersed in the text of the succeeding pages.

the brilliant educational maths counter

[This counter functions with javascript, you need to ensure that javascript is enabled for the counter to work.]

Allow the learner to play with this wonderful counter. If you press the Change Mode button to start the counting, it will count up slowly in ones. The counter is added to other arithmetic pages, and will be configured to illustrate the relevant sums. These settings may be changed by the user on any page.

Play around and you’ll find you can do some pretty complicated and weird sums, if that sort of thing gives you joy. If you’re really determined, you can even make the counter say “NaN”, or “Not a Number”. That’s an error message telling you that you’ve done something silly.

The operator may

  • set the start number;
  • make the counter go up or down - increase or decrease the numbers, including counting in negative numbers;
  • speed the counter up, or slow it down;
  • change the size of steps, for example to demonstrate the two-times table;
  • make the counting steps positive or negative;
  • add up to five decimal places;
  • change the base, incrementally, from binary (base 2), through decimal (base 10) and hexadecimal (base 16), up to base 32;
  • the counter can run automatically, or be stopped and then stepped manually by the user.
  • count the number of manual steps done, using the secondary, resettable counter; this being useful for multiplication and division sums.

Any further extensions to this counter would make it into a calculator, see below.

[This counter functions with javascript, you need to ensure that javascript is enabled for the counter to work.]
Is the counter Manual or Automatic? :

You have done manual steps since the last reset

Decimal Places :
the counter is displayed up to decimal places

[Note: number of places must be between 0 and 5]
[Note: the Change Mode button will stop or start the counter.
The Manual Step button moves the counter one step.]
Reset Counter Value:

[enter number in base 10]
[Note: number must be entered in base 10; it will be rounded to the currently allowed number of decimal places]

Change Step:
Enter step size:
[enter: step size in base 10]
[Note: step size must be entered in base 10; it will be rounded to the current allowed number of decimal places.]

change step size:

is added or subtracted on each update


Counting up/counting down

Base :
the counter is displayed in base

[Note: base must be between 2 and 32]
Change Speed:
the counter changes every seconds.

[Note: speed not allowed to be faster than 0.1 seconds]

You are welcome to reproduce this configurable counter. However, all pages that include this counter must display a prominent and visible link to:, with the following text:
“The Configurable Practice Counter was developed by the auroran sunset on behalf of and is copyright to © 2009”.
This text and the code, including all comments, must not be altered.

© 2009

Once a learner has understood enough from playing the counter, it is time to introduce the learner to handling a hand-held or screen-based calculator. Screen-based calculators are generally packaged with computer operating systems, such as Windows. Google also allows much calculating and unit conversion. For instance, try entering “What is 2.6 acres in hectares?” into the Google query box.

Google calculation and unit conversion


end notes

  1. In the classroom, it is common for the teacher to act to achieve quick results, rather than teaching a long-term method that provides understanding of what is being taught. This can be seen with the previously highly popular look-say method of teaching reading.

    Teachers could boast of how quickly their pupils could ‘read’, many of whom were later classified as ‘dyslexic’. These pupils, when they came across unknown words, might learn its shape to recognise next time, but not its sound. Such children would learn to divine the word’s meaning from context, but would not know how pronounce the words, a skill necessary for confidently being able to read words correctly, and for being able to read out loud.

  2. The rule of Saint Benedict for monasteries, a translation by Dom Bernard Basil Bolton OSB, monk of Ealing Abbey, 1968. /
sums will set you free includes the series of documents about economics and money at
moneybookers information e-gold information fiat money and inflation
calculating moving averages the arithmetic of fractional banking

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