objects can be any discrete thing, from a doll, to a drumbeat, to the idea of a unicorn) and a prototypical set, namely a set of number words. For example, when a child counts a set of seven bears, the child makes a 1-to-1 correspondence between the list 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7 and the collection of bears. To count the bears, the child says the number word list 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7 while pointing to one new bear for each number. As a result, each bear is paired with one number, each number is paired with one bear, and there are no unpaired numbers or bears once counting is completed. The pairing could be carried out in many different ways (starting with any one of the bears and proceeding to any other bear next, and so on), but any single way of making such a 1-to-1 correspondence by counting establishes that there are seven bears in the set.
A key characteristic of object counting is that the last number word has a special status, as it specifies the total number of items in a collection. For example, when a child counts a set of seven bears, the child counts 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, pointing to one bear for each number. The last number that is said, 7, is not just the last number in the list, but also indicates that there are seven bears in the set (i.e., cardinality of the set). Thus when counting the 7 bears, the counter shifts from a counting reference (to 7 as the last bear when counting) to a cardinal reference when referring to 7 as the number of bears in all. Counting therefore provides another way to grasp the abstract idea that all sets of a fixed number of things share a common characteristic—that when one counts two sets that have the same number of objects, the last counting word said will be the same for both.
Another key observation about counting is that, for any given number in the list of counting numbers, the next number in the list tells how many objects are in a set that has one more object than do sets of the given number of objects. For example, if there are five stickers in a box and one more sticker is put into the box, then one knows even without counting them all again that there will now be six stickers in the box, because 6 is the next number in the counting list. Generally each successive counting number describes a quantity that is one more than the quantity that the previous number describes.
In a sense, then, counting is adding: Each counting number adds one more to the previous collection (see Figure 2-1). Of course, if one counts backward, then one is subtracting. These observations are essential for children’s early methods of solving addition and subtraction problems. Also, each step in the counting process can be thought of as describing the total number of objects that have been counted so far.
The number word list and written number symbols in the base 10 place-value system. Each number in the number list has a unique spoken name and can be represented by a unique written symbol. The names and symbols for the initial numbers in the list have been passed along by tradition, but