Printables Interactive

What is Subitizing

Subitizing, a term often used in mathematical learning, is the ability to rapidly identify the quantity of items in a small group without individually counting them. This skill, usually applied to small quantities, is significantly enhanced by patterns. A classic example is how we instantly recognize the number of dots (one to six) on a dice.

Unlike estimation, which involves a numerical judgement or strategy, subitizing occurs swiftly and accurately. It’s a crucial executive functioning skill for young learners as it forms the bedrock for basic number sense, aids operational fluency, and enhances the ability to perceive relationships and patterns between numbers.

Key Vocabulary in Subitizing

When teaching subitizing, introducing certain vocabulary can enhance learners’ understanding of this fundamental concept. Words like ‘accuracy’, ‘speed’, ‘guess’, and ‘confidence’ are integral to the process. Encourage students to identify instances where they are asked to estimate or make quick numerical judgments. Prompting questions like “Why can we tell what number is on the die without even counting each dot?” or “How does the pattern help us make a quick, accurate guess?” can stimulate their thinking process.

Types of Subitizing: Perceptual and Conceptual

Subitizing manifests in two forms: perceptual and conceptual, adding complexity to this executive functioning skill.

Perceptual Subitizing: Commonly observed in young children who can instantly recognize one to three objects. This skill is developed through repetitive exposure to patterns.

Conceptual Subitizing: This involves recognizing sets of numbers within larger groups. For instance, seeing two groups of four in an eight-dot pattern on a domino.

Strategies for Teaching Subitizing

  • Dot Cards: Dot cards are an effective teaching tool for subitizing. These cards, with varying numbers of dots arranged in different patterns, are shown to students who are then asked to quickly identify the number of dots without counting. Initially, begin with cards displaying one to four dots, and as students become more adept, increase the number of dots and vary the patterns. This exercise enhances both perceptual and conceptual subitizing skills.
  • Ten Frames: Ten frames are grids of 10 squares set in a two-by-five rectangle, used to help students visualize numbers and their relationships. By placing different numbers of counters or dots on the ten frame and asking students to identify the number represented, students learn to understand quantities as a whole rather than as individual units. This method promotes subitizing and as proficiency increases, double ten frames can be introduced for numbers beyond ten.
  • Number Talks: Number talks are focused discussions about numbers and their relationships. During these talks, present a dot card to students and ask, “How do you see it?” For example, a card with eight dots arranged as two groups of four may be seen differently by different students. This encourages flexible thinking about numbers and enhances conceptual subitizing skills.
  • Interactive Games: Incorporating games that involve quick recognition of numbers, such as bingo or memory matching games, makes learning fun and engaging. In a memory game, students match cards with the same number of dots. In bingo, students cover the number on their card corresponding to the quantity of dots shown. These games not only make learning enjoyable, but also reinforce the concept of subitizing.


  • Number Memory Game: Divide students into groups and give each group a series of numbers. One group gets numbers broken into recognizable patterns (like phone numbers or large numbers with commas), while the other group receives the same numbers without any grouping. After brief exposure, have students write down what they remember. Discuss how the group with patterned numbers usually performs better, emphasizing how our brains more easily remember numbers when they are grouped or patternized.
  • Pattern Toys: Use toys that encourage recognition of grouping and patterns such as abacuses, dice, and playing cards. For example, students can roll two dice and quickly say the total number of dots, or play games with playing cards where they have to quickly identify the number of symbols on a card.
  • Counting Picture Books: Incorporate early childhood counting picture books into your library. These books, filled with colorful illustrations and creative narratives, allow children to see and count different sets of objects. As they become familiar with the quantities, they’ll start recognizing the number of objects at a glance without counting, thus enhancing their subitizing skills.
  • Pattern Cards: Create pattern cards with varying dot patterns for use in games like “Around the World”. In this game, students compete against each other to identify the number of dots on a card the fastest. This activity makes learning fun and encourages quick recognition of quantities, a key aspect of subitizing.


Activities designed for elementary aged students.