Maths - Lessons from the East

2nd March 2012 at 00:00
China's simple number system gives its children a head start

England is languishing at number 28 in the maths tables for 15-year- olds, while China is number one. But I believe there is more to the Chinese success story than hard work and tiger mothers. Just look at the way we name our numbers.

Take "fourteen" or "sixteen". Why not "oneteen" or "twoteen" or "threeteen"? Similarly, we have "sixty" and "seventy" but not "twoty" or "threety".

Now think about 14 as a numeral. We say the "four" bit first but write the "teen" bit first. Likewise for all the teen numbers. But we reverse that process when we reach the twenties. No wonder that, at the age of 5, distinguishing between 21 and 12 takes some thought.

For the Chinese, on the other hand, 11 is "ten-one", 12 is "ten-two", thirteen is "ten-three" and so on. Likewise, 21 is "two-tens-one", 22 is "two-tens-two" and 23 is "two-tens-three".

The upshot of this beautifully simple system is that, on average, Chinese children can count to 40 by the time they are 4. English-speaking children are usually 5 before they master this skill. So by the time our children reach school, they are already a year behind their Chinese peers. And because the Chinese system is so clear, basic number operations such as adding and subtracting are much easier.

Imagine you are 6 years old. Now try adding 27 and 12 in your head. Before you can begin, you must be able to interpret the words - for example, 12 actually means one 10 and two units. Likewise, 27 is actually two 10s and seven units. Then perform the addition, adding the 10s and the units, before translating back into words: three 10s and nine units is 39.

Now try the Chinese way: two-tens-seven plus one-ten-two. The solution is literally embedded in the question. Answer: three-tens-nine. And a similarly simple system exists for fractions. Could this explain why China has no culture of negativity surrounding maths?

Success breeds success. No wonder that, by the time English pupils sit their GCSEs, pupils in China are on average two years ahead. Hard work has its place, of course. It seems that tiger mothers can drive their children to conquer even our opaque number system: British Chinese pupils are the most successful in GCSE exams. Perhaps we should think about learning some lessons from the East.

Naomi Sani has taught for 18 years in both primary and secondary schools. She is also a freelance consultant, an Inset provider and the author of How to do Maths so Your Children Can Too.


bevevans22 has shared a number of activities to improve pupils' number skills.

- Ahoy, m'hearties! Get pupils counting treasure with a pirate-themed board game.

- Hop on the maths bus to practise adding and subtracting.

- Keep pupils hungry for maths with a workbook based on The Very Hungry Caterpillar.

For all links and resources visit


Chat about the Chinese way of teaching maths in the TES maths forum. And check out a debate on the Singapore maths method, which has had some success in the US.

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