How to teach number formation

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Learning to write numbers is a big deal for youngsters and learning number formation correctly is an important handwriting skill to master in the foundation phase of school. As with most of the skills taught at school some children pick it up really quickly while others need a little bit of guidance before they are writing their 1,2,3’s. Much like letter formation activities, there are lots of fun, creative ways to reinforce correct number formations and methods to ensure that forming numbers correctly becomes second nature.

number formation activities for teaching kids how to correctly form numbers

Why correct number formation is important

It’s always rewarding to see a young child start to recognize numbers and to attempt to copy what they see. Is it really that important how they form the numbers?

Surely if a 5 looks like a 5 it doesn’t have to be formed in a specific way? It does seem very prescriptive to insist on forming the numbers one way. But it is important to teach correct formations when children begin to write their own numbers.

Teaching number formation with the correct staring points and the correct path to follow when forming a number allows a motor memory to be effectively laid down in the brain. You can read about motor planning and motor planning’s impact on handwriting in previous posts.

Following the same pattern each time you form the number allows this motor memory to become strengthened more quickly and the child’s ability to form the number automatically develops. This frees up their brain to focus more on the content of what they are working on as opposed to using brainpower to figure out how to make the number.

How to teach number formation

There are a few tips that will really help when teaching number formation. These include:

  • using correct starting points
  • incorporating sensory input
  • repetition
  • rhythm / song

Number formation starting points

The most important idea for me to get across to children learning to form numbers is that they must start from the correct place.

We call this the starting point or the starting spot. I tell the children when we are learning to write numbers that we are always going to drive the same way on the “number road’’ of whichever number we are learning to write. We will always start at the same place and drive the same way – no reversing, changing direction or starting in the wrong spot!

All of the numbers start at the top so we make sure that we always start ‘up there’. I have permission from the children to tickle their feet if I catch them starting any numbers from the bottom!

Then I use a visual cue to show the children where we are going to start. This visual cue could be a sticker, smiley face, star, small picture, anything that is going to remind them of the correct place to start that number. Below is a picture of how to use round stickers to demonstrate where to start the number. You can also add arrows to indicate the direction you must travel from the starting point.

  • In the early stages of number formations allow children to trace over numbers or dotted lines making up the numbers.
  • Work on numbers 1 to 5 first and once we are feeling confident and happy about starting in the right spot we move on to number 6 to 10.

Using sensory input for number formation

Once children have started grasping the concept of how to form the numbers correctly you can use sensory input to pin down the map of how the number is formed.

I have found movement and tactile inputs a sure fire way to reinforce correct number formations. Movement often involves forming large numbers on a blackboard or white board or ‘drawing’ these numbers in the air with your hand.

Painting– Forming numbers in paint on an easel or drawing large numbers on the driveway are also ways to incorporate movement when learning number formations.

Air Writing– By virtue of the big bold movements performed by the arm and hand more parts of the brain are activated in the process of laying down the motor pattern for that number. Children can get a real feel of how the numbers should be formed when their whole body and arm moves to make the number.

Writing Trays– Tactile input is an equally powerful tool when it comes to reinforcing number formations. Forming numbers in sand trays and sensory bags reinforces the correct way the number should be written and makes learning numbers lots of fun. Try these writing tray ideas to work on number formation.

Here are more ways to incorporate sensory input into formation of letters and numbers.

Using repetition in writing numbers

Like so many things that we learn practice makes perfect. And number formations are no different. A huge part of achieving success with number formations is repetition repetition repetition. Look for fun ways to encourage the repetition of the number you are working on.

  • Select a number to practice. Use a dice to see how many of that specific number you need to draw
  • Draw rows of each number
  • Draw the number on a chalk board, wipe it clean with a sponge and repeat
  • Turn each number into a rainbow number. There are some lovely ideas on rainbow writing that can be adapted for numbers.

Rhythm and Songs for teaching how to write numbers

Nothing sticks in your head like a catchy tune and using rhythm and song can be an effective way of cementing number formations in your brain. A simple example of a number formation is given below.  

Here is more information on using rhythm in handwriting skills.

e.g. Whoa its high up here but down I go. I’m number one I told you so (video 1)

Here are a few ideas of number formation songs from youtube. I did notice quite a few sites form their zero in a clockwise direction. I always encourage anti-clockwise circles to prevent letter reversals with children start writing.

It’s important for the child’s school, therapist and parent to use the same number formation stories to increase the effectiveness of the story being committed to memory.

For more resources on number formation, grab a copy of The Handwriting Book, a comprehensive resource on development of handwriting, and specific strategies to promote legible and effective handwriting.

Now you know your 1,2,3’s next time you can write with me!

Contributor to The OT Toolbox: Janet Potterton is an occupational therapist working predominantly in school-based settings and I love, love, love my job. I have two children (if you don’t count my husband!), two dogs, one cat, two guinea pigs and one fish. When I am not with my family or at work I try to spend time in nature. The beach is my happy place.

number formation activities