Cardinal and Ordinal Numbers: Do these confuse your child?

Counting of numbers (also known as, enumeration) is considered by many parents to be the beginning of mathematics education. The concept of counting (and numbers) is usually introduced to children when they are in the pre-primary and kindergarten age group. It is important for parents of young children to understand that in mathematics, numbers are classified into two categories: a. Cardinal Numbers and b. Ordinal Numbers. In this blog, we explain the difference between the two types. We have avoided using technical language as much as possible.

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Cardinal and Ordinal Numbers
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Cardinal Numbers

These are numbers that represent quantity. When we say there are five apples in the basket, the number 5 (five) represents the quantity of apples in the basket. If we ask a child to count the number of balls that he has, we are asking the child to represent the quantity of balls that he has, using a number.

Cardinal Numbers: Numbers that represent Quantity

If you wish to know more about cardinal numbers, please read this blog.

Ordinal Numbers

Ordinal numbers represent position. They do NOT represent quantity. In an elevator, when we press 3 to get to the third floor of an apartment, the number 3 represents the position of the desired floor with reference to the other floors. When a child tells you that she came second in a quiz competition, she again is telling you about her position in the competition with reference to other children, using the number 2.

Ordinal Numbers: Numbers that represent Position

If you wish to know more about ordinal numbers, please read this blog.

Cardinal and Ordinal Numbers:

Cardinal vs Ordinal: What should I teach my child first?

Parents need to be careful about not confusing the child by switching frequently between the two systems. Especially if you are teaching numbers to young children who are in the pre-primary or kindergarten age group. Adults are so used to using these two systems of numbers that they often fail to realise that differences between cardinal and ordinal numbers could be confusing from the child’s perspective.

In general, it is easier for a young child to understand the concept of quantity rather than position. Further, operations such as addition or subtraction or multiplication are relevant to the cardinal system and not the ordinal system. We advise parents to try and use the cardinal system (quantity) as the basis for teaching numbers to young children, at least till the age of 4. Please note that each child is unique and some kids can grasp and be comfortable with the differences from a very early age.

  • Counting (enumeration) is an important aspect of learning mathematics.
  • Cardinal and ordinal numbers are two distinct categories. Cardinal numbers represent quantity while ordinal numbers represent position.
  • Start with cardinal numbers, when the child is in the 2-4 years of age group (pre-primary and lower kindergarten).
  • Move on to ordinal numbers after 4 years (upper kindergarten and above), depending on the child.
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