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What’s the Difference Between Numbers, Numerals and Digits? A Question Often Asked by Primary Educators

What are numbers, numerals and digits for primary schools
Many primary educators ask us what are the differences between numbers, numerals and digits. Though often used interchangeably, they have different meanings. We explain these definitions to answer this question.

Numbers, numerals, and digits play a crucial role in our everyday lives, forming the foundation of our mathematical language. While the terms might seem interchangeable, and many people do indeed say these words interchangeably, they carry distinct meanings, each contributing to our ability to communicate and comprehend numerical concepts. There is much confusion over what exactly numbers, numerals and digits are, and more importantly, many educators often wonder if they are using the correct terminology when teaching their primary school pupils during maths lessons. So let’s take a closer look at these terms to help clarify the confusion.

What are Numbers?

A number is a means to measure or count things, existing as an abstract concept in our minds. When discussing numbers, we employ symbols like “3” or words like “three”. However, we can also represent the same number by holding up three fingers or bouncing a ball three times. These are various ways of expressing the same numerical concept.

Some numbers, like π (Pi), cannot be precisely written, but they still qualify as numbers because we understand their meaning.

What are Numerals?

A numeral is a distinct sign or word that represents a number. Examples include 5, 36 and eleven. Therefore, the number is the conceptual idea, and the numeral is the written or visual representation of that idea.

What are Digits?

A digit is a singular symbol used to create numerals. The digits 0, 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9 are the ten digits commonly used in everyday numerals. For instance, in the numeral 628, there are three digits: “6,” “2,” and “8”.

Digits, Numerals, and Numbers

In summary, digits combine to form numerals, and numerals illustrate the conceptual idea of a number. This process is akin to how letters come together to create words, and words convey ideas or things.

Number Instead of Numeral

Occasionally, people use “number” when they should use “numeral”. However, this is not a significant concern because most people can still comprehend the intended meaning.

In summary, we have aimed to provide a comprehensive clarification of the distinctions between numbers, numerals, and digits. We trust that our explanations have effectively addressed the inquiries of primary school educators seeking clarity on this matter. Furthermore, for those who have stumbled upon this blog post, we aspire to have illuminated these mathematical terms, leaving you with a more profound understanding when teaching maths.

You may want to check out our blog Striking the Right Chord: Advice for a Better Work-Life Balance for Primary School Teachers.

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