A Young Aspie Figures Out Figures

Derp-Alert:  Run away! Head for the next post. This post is of possible interest only to:  Math nerds, some teachers, bored Aspies, parents and friends of Aspies, and regular folk who have finished the back of the toothpaste tube for the n-teenth time and are looking for something with a little more bite (heh, heh–oh, Outlier Babe, you are a laugh riot…).

If This is What Looks Back At You Each Morning, This Post Is For YOU

At age 6, I starting thinking:  “Numbers don’t make any sense.” Why did we decide to represent four objects by the thing that looks like this ?:

The Number 4 Asks Nu

Nu? You’re Asking ME?

Roman numerals were very logical.

...Four Dead Christians, Five Dead Christians...

Arabic ones seemed arbitrary, but I reasoned that there must be a logical basis for them, too. So I sat in Mrs. Thompson’s 2nd grade class writing the numbers 1 through 9 over and over on a piece of paper.

I kept experimenting until I finally figured it out:   It made so much sense!  It all had to do with angles:

Click the Pic for a Lovely Animation of Types of Angles

Just like the Arabs (as I surmised) I drew straight-lined angular digits: A 1 with a single top hook forming 1 angle, a zig-zag 2 having 2 angles, and so on. I was so proud I’d solved the puzzle!

Interfering somewhat with my joy, I’d had to add a distinctly maze-like curl to the tail of the 9 in order to provide sufficient angles, and a base and a European crossbar to the number 7. 

But I was far too pleased with myself my hypothesis to abandon it over these huge, gaping minor failings. 

Here are the numbers exactly as I drew them:

From Jeff's Lunchbreak:  Origin of Arabic Numerals (http://www.jefflewis.net/blog/2009/10/origin_of_arabic_numerals_was_1.html)

1 Through 4 Were No-Brainers

Roman Numeral Trivia: Even after Arabic numbers were adopted, Roman numerals were still sometimes preferred to Arabic ones during medieval times for their reasonable security against fiscal fraud.

For example, any digit of the number 2381 can be altered to cause a substantial difference (as much as 7000 by changing the 2 to a 9), but the equivalent MMCCCLXXXI cannot be easily altered to produce a new number.

– From Math Lair, Roman Numerals


5, 6, and 8 Were Easy, Too. But 7 Is Quite the Cheat...

(I can’t tell you how stunned I was to find my exact original numerals online–as well as other angle-based versions–and to discover for the first time when writing this post that others had also theorized that angles were behind the shapes of Arabic numbers.

Shout-out to my fellow geeks!


...And What a Curly-Tailed Workaround For Number 9!

I liked that my hypothesis explained why Mrs. Thompson insisted we write the number 4 the closed-top triangle way, like it appeared in our math book, instead of the way most people wrote it:

Numberjacks Howdy-Do Four

The “Howdy!” Way of Writing the Number 4 (From “Numberjacks”

Written the “Howdy Do!” way, the number 4 had five angles instead of four, so of course that way was wrong!

Another Reason To Use the Triangle-y Four

I further theorized that over time, people had gotten tired of drawing the 9’s complicated loop-de-loop tail, so they just kind of unwound it until the digit’s whole spine developed scoliosis.

The 7 lost its extra horizontal lines due to laziness, too (except in England, where they aren’t as lazy as we  Americans). 

Yes, I was quite the scientific thinker at my grand old age of 6.

An Even Dumber Classmate

A bonus benefit to my hypothesis was that I was able to use touch math from then on whenever I did addition:

I had already been using it for the digits 2 and 3, touching each pointy digit tip with my pointy pencil tip. (There are two points on the left side of the 2, three on the left of the 3.)  When I added 2 plus 3, I just counted up as I touched each point:

1-2-3-4-5” .

Hear the Strauss? 1-2-3, 1-2-3...

Now I could do the same thing for the bigger digits, by touching each angle (or its imagined historical position) and counting up on those.  Nice.

Many children devise digit-touch systems. A highly-talented Math instructor once told me that these are the children who become stronger in math concepts.

One of My Old Math Teachers Just Heard That...

He said research suggests that children who don’t develop their own touch systems can be taught one to gain the same advantages.

There are commercially-available and cost-free touch math systems. The touch positions on digits differ among systems.

The most prevalent commercial system is Touch Math, described in the References. I take issue with that program’s name, and some of its features, also explained in the References.

Because I was weak in math, it’s too bad no teacher back then introduced me to dice math: 

To instantly recognize the numbers up to 12 visualized like they are on die faces, and to automatically add and subtract by these groups.  Now THAT would have been at least as helpful as touch math.

Dem Bones, Dem Bones Is...Great Fo' Math!

A gentleman named Owen Prince realized this many years back, and developed a dice-based touch math system he copyrighted as Dot Math:

Dot Math Keypad, copyright Owen Prince, from DotMath for kids, http://dotmath.tripod.com/index.html

Dot Math Keypad, copyrighted by Owen Prince, from DotMath for Kids

Some of the opinion portions of Mr. Prince’s site are worded in a way that sounds a little…well…hmmm…perhaps it’s better not to say.

However, I recommend a visit there, anyhow, because his concept is worthwhile and because, after all the “copyright dispute” text (you’ll see what I mean), he gives a lovely, if oddly-worded, helpful review of math resources.

Please see also his Comment on this post, because he gives a detailed, impassioned and, to me, convincing argument in favor of using his system over the commercial Touch Math’s approach.

Okay, this post should end right here, but it’s just gonna keep going and going, so if you’re wise, you’ll stop reading now and go have a nice cup of tea. Enjoy!

Oh–I guess you may as well read the rest while it cools down, then, yeah?

Entirely off-topic, but another helpful idea: 

That same talented math teacher, of 1st graders, did not teach or use the English words for 11 through 19 in his classroom until the end of the year. 

He had his children use the Asian nomenclature “ten-one (versus “eleven”), ten-two (for “twelve”), ten-three…”.  He continued this pattern when using his number poster that displayed numbers up to 100 (so, for “55” he said “five-ten-five”).

This teacher considered this a key feature in enabling his students to retain the place value concepts that he felt they developed naturally but which were otherwise interfered with by English number terminology.

Happy Grandma Ratty: “Let’s See: That’s 5-ten Baby Ratties In Those Last Litters, Each Baby Will Have 10 More Babies…

Each year, all of that talented teacher’s 1st grade students ended their first year in school testing at a 3rd grade Math level.

(BTW, I can say from budget-driven experience that Cheerios threaded onto coffee stirrers stuck vertically into clay work just fine for abacuses, if you can prevent snacking to hide evidence of miscalculations.)

Relevant:  From a June, 2010 review of  literature on cross-cultural mathematics instructional and learning, Chinese Number Words, Culture, and Mathematics:

“Although it is not possible to disentangle the influences of linguistic, cultural, and contextual factors on mathematics performance, language is still seen as contributing to early cross-national differences in mathematics attainment.”

Imagine if every classroom across America instituted that teacher’s simple terminology change today. 

Easily implemented, easily taught to teachers with five minutes of instruction (“Start doing it, it will feel odd, but it works, it’s easy to do, you’ll get used to it”). 

Or, pick the 10 lowest-performing schools in each state and implement this in 5 of them.  Compare the 10 schools in two years.  Bet you’ll net impressive results in those 5 out of 10!

More on Asian Number Names

Another interesting reference on English vs. Asian Place Value Concepts and Number Words

Touch Math vs. touch math

Note the capitalization: In this post, lowercase “touch math” means the generic touching of digits. It is irksome that TouchMath was permitted to copyright a phrase that can apply equally to non-commercial uses, and to uses other than touching pencil to paper.

The two words “touch math” could as easily mean the same as “hands-on Math”, such as the touching of beads or any items used to help in counting.

More on Touch Math

The commercial “Touch Math” program’s addition demonstration in 50 seconds (the program also supports other operations):

TouchMath can be effective, but it would have caused problems for me and my particular flavor of Aspie-ness, and I bet the same factors could bother other kids, too:

A) “Double touch points“.

As shown in the video, some touch points/dots count as 1, but others as 2. Remember that each spot will be an imagined tiny speck on the child’s own hand-drawn digits when actually used.)

I was a Math-phobic Aspie child. Different-valued dots would have given me the mental screaming-meemies.

B) Random positions of touch points.

The digits 7 and 9 in particular look like a confused scattering of dotted nonsense.

My particular flavor of Aspergers still freaks when confronted with this type of disorganization.

We're Just Going to Put a Touch Point Here...and Here...and HERE!!

C) Touch points on top of digits, rather than adjacent.

This is off-putting for me as an adult; when a child, I believe it would have made it difficult for me to use the touch points with my handwritten digits.

The Dot Math’s Mr. Prince claims that he has research demonstrating that for some students this interferes with transference of skills to regular non-dotted digits. That is why his system, which originally had dots atop digits, was revised to have them adjacent. I would love to see research on this issue.

An ideological objection:

No generic phrase should be cornered by a commercial product. One can no longer perform a google search for anything to do with the generic concept–I had to plod through 29 pages of results before landing on one reference to non-copyrighted material: a lone research paper I found on Eric (and even that one may refer to the Big Touch).

Further, the two words “touch math” can easily be applied to any mathematical manipulation of real or virtual three-dimensional objects (e.g. counters, graph paper, a balance…).  How about if I copyright the phrase “Edit Post”, or “Code HTML”? How about this one?:

Bite. Me.

Okay, the post is finally finished. You’d better go stick that tea in the microwave. Careful this time…


Leave a comment


  1. You have indicated that you have a difficult time understanding
    some things so I would like to point out some errors you have
    on your site for you.

    You said:
    “A gentleman named Owen Prince realized this many years back,
    and married touch math and dice math in one system he copyrighted as Dot Math”

    1. I did not marry touch math with dice. The dots on top of the
    numbers 1 to 5 were in my original Dot math from 1966. If you
    go to the web site and look at the copyright charts you will
    that this was many, many, many years before touch math.
    Dot math was first so that would make Touch math
    a very poor copy of my Dot Math.

    2. From 1966 to 1995 I worked on fixing the problems with my
    1966 Dot math. The number one problem was the dots on top
    of the number. Students get stuck on the dots and counting
    dots and can’t see the number symbol because of the dots.
    The dots are bonded to the number symbol because they are on
    top. this makes a new symbol that must be translated back to the standard number symbol.
    It took until 1995 for me to recover from this very big mistake.
    The different versions of my Dot Math show the transition from
    dots on top of the number to the dice dots associated with
    the number symbol and not on the number symbol.

    3. The “DotMath for kids” system is not “Touch math” They are opposite
    concepts not different versions of the same thing. They are not the
    same thing.

    4. The people who contact me want help to recover from touch math because they can’t do math without counting every dot and
    circle as they were taught to. This slows them down so much that
    they get frustrated and give up.
    A young lady at a till was to give me 15 dollars in change. She
    gave me two 5 dollar bills. I asked her if she had grade 12 math and
    she said she had a grade 12 diploma. I ask her if she had been taught
    touch math when younger and she said she had. I showed her how to
    do the math so she could give me 15 dollars in change.

    This is only one example of what I see from touch math. Most
    teachers I know who teach grade 7 and up hate touch math because
    they don’t have the time to reteach grade one math to these

    5. I hope you got my point that I do not have anything to do
    with touch math. I did not marry it to anything. It has nothing
    to do with Dot math or DotMath for kids.

    I hope this has help you understand the difference between these
    two systems. I spend 29 years working on fixing any problems with
    the Dot Math system because It had to be correct. It was to help
    my friends and family understand math. I would not want to do
    any harm to them. The DotMath for kids system is not
    a get rich quick scam. 29 years is not quick. Truth is proven
    over time. The lesson plans are only 35 dollars for the complete system. Compare that to the complete total cost of touch math.

    Thank you for the time and space for my rant. I am very intense
    about this because of the 29 years invested. This makes ME the
    worlds leading expert on Dot Math.

    Owen Prince


    • Dear Mr. Prince–
      You and I corresponded via email, but I never replied here online–Whoops! I edited the entry at the time, but am re-editing it tonight to make additional changes to more fairly represent your input–your input which was/is so deeply appreciated.


  2. Good grief. This has actually proven one of my most enduring and popular posts, despite it’s length and age. Yet no one ever Liked it?! I hereby crown it “Liked” by ME!



Best comment wins prize! (sorry, i tell naughty lie...)

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: