You’ve been framed! A closer look at ten-frames

You’ve been framed! A closer look at ten-frames

What is a ten-frame?

A ten-frame is a simply a rectangular frame, with 2 rows of 5 squares,  into which counters  or cubes can be placed to illustrate numbers less than or equal to ten. They are extremely useful resources to aid the development of number sense within, and beyond the context of ten. The use of ten-frames was developed by researchers such as Van de Walle (1988) and Bobis (1988).

They can help children:

  • keep track of counting
  • see number relationships eg odd and even numbers, doubles, near-doubles, number bonds
  • understand and learn the number bonds of numbers to and above 10
  • develop their understanding of place value
  • in their learning by being  part of a larger CPA approach to maths instruction


 What about a five-frame or  a twenty-frame?

While the ten-frame is the most common arrangement, multiples can be used to demonstrate numbers beyond ten eg 35 could be shown using three full ten-frames and five on a fourth frame. For exploring numbers up to five (eg with junior infants), a five-frame could be used; however, it is perfectly acceptable to use a ten frame and limit your use to just the numbers up to five (ie the top row).

The Operation Maths programme provides FREE frames with all the junior end books; five-frames for junior infants, ten-frames for senior infants and double-ten frames/twenty-frames for first and second classes. You can also show a digital version of the five-frame or ten-frame using the sorting eManipulative (see below) accessible on


Horizontal or vertical?

The most common configuration for a ten-frame is to use it five-wise (horizontally) and this is how they are shown in the Operation Maths books. However, the alternative pair-wise (vertically) configuration can also be used and both configurations have their merits:

  • The five wise (horizontal) configuration encourages links to the benchmark of five (see more on benchmarks below) and typically counters are laid out on the top row first, starting on the left ie 7 is 5 on the top and 2 on the bottom, therefore 5 + 2 = 7 (see image above)
  • The pair wise (vertical) configuration is very useful when emphasising the idea of doubles, near doubles, in-between doubles, odd/even numbers, halves etc. When using ten frames in this way, the counters are usually laid out on the bottom row first, starting on the left ie 7 is 2, 2, 2 and 1 on the left. The 100 square eManipulative, again accessible on can be very useful to show this configuration (choose the counters only option and then hide all counters, revealing only what is required)

I would encourage teachers to alternate between both layouts, as this encourages the children to develop flexibility in their thinking, which is a vital requirement in the attainment of mathematical fluency. Similarly, while it is advisable initially to stick to the traditional way of laying out counters/cubes as described above, when children are comfortable with those configurations they should then be encourage to identify the number of counters when arranged more randomly; for example below the children can be challenged to identify the number of counters below and to explain how they came to that answer.


Four relationships for number sense

Van de Walle lists four relationships that children should develop with numbers one through ten, all of which are ideal to be explored and reinforced using ten-frames:

  • spatial relationships
  • one and two more than/less than relationships
  • benchmarks of 5 and 10
  • part-part-whole relationships


 Spatial relationships and subitising

Spatial relationships is the ability to recognise an amount by its shape. Similar to subitising, which is the ability to identify a number of objects at a glance (ie without counting) the use of ten-frames encourages the simultaneous development of both these closely-related skills ie  if shown the standard horizontal configuration of seven the children might explain how they recognise it eg

  • “The top is full so that’s 5 and there’s 2 on the bottom so that’s 7”
  • “I see 3 empty spaces so it must be 7 because 7 and 3 is 10”

However, the children don’t need to start by instantly recognising a number in a frame, rather a progression might look like this:

  • Initially, without using of identifying amounts/numbers, the children are shown two different representations and asked to identify which has more/which has less.
  • The children can be asked to reproduce a pattern created by the teacher eg he/she shows a layout on a frame and children copy  this and show it on their own frames (no numbers)

Again the teacher should vary the representations: initially use five-wise (top row then bottom row) and pairwise (bottom two cells and up) configurations and then progress towards random arrangements, which are more challenging and allows the children to say what they see.


One and two more than/less than relationships

At this point, and within the specified number limits for the class, the teacher can show an amount on a frame eg 7 and then ask how many there would be if one more was added. The children should be encouraged to visualise this, suggest answers (eg they could write this on their Operation Maths MWBs) and explain their reasoning before using the counters/cubes and frames to confirm the answer. Initially, the children may have to count all the counters again, whereas ultimately, it is hoped that they will realise it is more efficient to count on.

Once comfortable with this, the process can be repeated to ask how many there would be if one counter was taken away (a simple introduction to subtraction as deduction), if two more counters were added and if two were taken away.


Benchmarks of 5 and 10

Through repetitive use of the ten frame, the children should already be developing an understanding of the numbers to combine to make these important benchmarks eg 7 + 3 = 10, 4 + 1 = 5 etc. The children can record the benchmarks using number sentences and/or branching number bonds (see opposite). Branching bonds are more visual and less abstract than number sentences alone as it is easier to visualise how 4 and 6 are combined to make 10 and they do not necessitate the use of operational symbols.

Other manipulatives such as the math rack/rekenrek (which is used in Mata sa Rang) also encourage children to think in terms of groups of fives and tens.

In first and second classes, the benchmarks should expand to include 20 and in higher classes other benchmarks, such as 100, are also important.


Part-part-whole relationships

Children need to appreciate that amounts/numbers can be broken down/decomposed into other amounts/numbers and that they can can also be combined to make larger amounts/numbers. In this way, the benchmarks of 5 and 10 are themselves examples of part-part-whole relationships but now the relationships should also include all the other numbers within the limits for the class.

Once children have grasped this understanding, they can begin to apply that to basic number facts (eg addition and subtraction) as they discover new strategies to arrive as answers without having to count all/count on. One of these key strategies is “Make 10” (see below) where the children change a less familiar fact into an easier fact by moving 1, 2 or 3 counters to make 10. Also known as compensation, this is a key strategy which can be applied to much larger numbers in higher classes. It also demonstrates the immense value of ten frame experiences in the junior classes and how they contribute towards the development of a child’s number sense that goes far beyond the less complex computations expected in the junior end classes.

Further reading:

Subitizing: What Is It? Why Teach It? By Douglas H. Clements

The Power of Subitising by Christina Tondevold, The Recovering Traditionalist

Building the benchmarks of 5 and 10 by Christina Tondevold, The Recovering Traditionalist

The Make 10 Strategy by Christina Tondevold, The Recovering Traditionalist

A Sense of ‘ten’ and Place Value from

What is a Ten Frame and why is it a useful tool for developing early number relationships and fact fluency?

Ten Frame Activities

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