Tracing Numbers Helps Math

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Since the 1900s, Montessori teachers have encouraged students to trace out numbers and letters with their fingers. While there was little scientific reasoning behind the task, Australian researchers have since discovered that those teachers were on to something.

A new study has found that students who use their finger to trace math problems seem to do better in math.

The authors of the paper gathered 275 students who ranged from nine – thirteen years of age and divided them into a test and control group. The test group was asked to trace their fingers over practice examples while they read their geometry or arithmetic material. Those in the control group were asked to simply look over their material.

Those who were in the test group completed their tasks faster and with more accuracy.

“Our findings have a range of implications for teachers and students alike. They show maths learning by young students may be enhanced substantially with the simple addition of instructions to finger-trace elements of maths problems,” said Dr. Paul Ginns, a Senior Lecturer in Educational Psychology and the research’s corresponding author.

The authors believe that using a finger to trace the sides of a triangle could push that information to the front of the learning queue in the mind and force your brain to prioritize it. “Doing so may reduce the load on working memory and its ability to retain complex material by ‘chunking’ information together.” 

“At the classroom level, teachers can assist students to learn new mathematical content by giving instructions to ‘trace over’ the important elements of worked examples that already appear in mathematics textbooks or worksheets. This simple, zero-cost teaching approach can enhance the effectiveness of mathematics instruction across multiple areas of the subject,” Dr. Ginns, said.

So there you go, a simple trick which might get your child’s brain to tick.


Marina Gomer is a journalist and mother of one.  She lives with her family in Sydney, Australia.