Workshop Wednesday: Dominoes Make Great Tactile “Flashcards”

Wouldn’t it be wonderful to have a single set of simple math learning aids that could help your students learn everything from basic number values to fractions, decimals, and percentages? It already exists, and you may even own a set: dominoes. Ordinary flashcards appeal to the student who learns best through visual means: seeing and reading. Saying the flashcard facts aloud will work best with the student who learns well through auditory means: hearing and saying. For the student whose fingers must connect with the lesson in a tangible way for him to truly lock the facts away in the deep recesses of his mind, dominoes make ideal flashcards!

Dominoes make great tactile “flashcards”!

Dominoes are wonderfully tactile, whether they are the smooth, heavy plastic ones that look like imitation ivory or the pressed wood versions with a decorative design embossed on the back side. The dots are usually carved out, and the depressions are filled with bright colors of paint. There is also usually some physical attribute serving as a divider between the two halves of the domino, either a carved or embossed line. All of these features work together to provide textural interest to the fingers that get to hold them – much more interesting than flat, boring, cardstock flashcards. Flipping through a stack of thin cards is one thing; stacking up dominoes, as one masters the facts they represent, is quite another thing. Dominoes appeal to many senses and learning styles with their bright colors, heavy thickness, and the wonderful sound they make as they clink together.

Let’s look at the wide variety of math exercises, from beginner level to more advanced skills, that can be performed with a set of dominoes.

Number Value

Count the spots. Say the number, or write the number. Repeat as needed for practice until the student knows how many seven is and can identify a group of dots with the appropriate number. Substitute a matching number of candies, blocks, or toy cars for the dots and repeat the counting exercise until the student understands that numbers can apply to more than just small colored dots in orderly patterns. Once the student has mastered the number relating to each distinct pattern of dots, arrange the same number of objects in different patterns to show that each number can occur in various types of groupings (e.g. four objects in a straight line is still four, even though they do not form a square, as on the domino).

Smaller v. Larger

When the student understands the principle of assigning values to digits, that same student can begin to differentiate smaller groups from larger groups. Since each domino conveniently displays two number groupings, use them to practice smaller v. larger numbers: help the student decide which group of dots represents the smaller number and turn that side to be on the left, leaving the larger number group on the right side. Repeat as needed for practice until the student can tell at a glance which number is smaller and which number is larger. Practice saying the numbers and deciding which is smaller and which is larger, and then count the dots, if necessary, for confirmation.

Two-Digit Numbers

Once again, each domino represents two digits. Help the student learn to read and write the two-digit numbers shown on each domino’s face. For example, if a domino shows a two and a six, that domino may be read as 26 or as 62. Dominoes that have no dots on one side can be read as a one-digit number and a two-digit number (e.g. 3 and 30). The smaller v. larger exercise can then be repeated with these two-digit numbers.


Students can begin simple addition problems by adding the two numbers represented on a domino and then counting the total of all dots for confirmation.


By holding a domino vertically with the larger number on top and the smaller number on the bottom, the student can begin learning to write and perform subtraction problems. More advanced students, who have learned the concepts of positive and negative numbers, can reverse the domino, placing the smaller number on top, and proceed with the subtraction exercise.


Dominoes can be used as multiplication flashcards by attempting to multiply the two numbers represented. If the student is unsure of an answer, it is advisable to consult a reference chart for the correct answer, rather than merely guess. Seeing the correct answer time after time will help the student memorize it by sight, and the student will eventually trust his memory instead of taking the time to look at the chart for the answer. (A calculator may also be used to check answers, but pressing a wrong button can deceive the student into believing a wrong answer.)


Holding the dominoes horizontally can represent the numbers in a division problem. The student can write those numbers down on paper to practice dividing. The beginning student should only divide small numbers into larger numbers, until his knowledge of decimals allows him to practice dividing larger numbers into smaller numbers.


Turn the dominoes face-down, so the dots are not visible. Practice counting, adding, and subtracting. Subtraction is merely undoing the addition process, and this can be easily illustrated by grouping and re-grouping the dominoes. Arrange groups of dominoes into rows to illustrate multiplication facts, and discuss how dividing is just undoing multiplication, but sometimes with leftovers called “the remainder.”

Fractions: Proper & Improper, Simplifying

Holding a domino vertically, the two numbers can represent the numerator (top) and denominator (bottom) of a fraction. Proper fractions always have the larger number in the denominator, while improper fractions always have the larger number in the numerator and can be simplified into a mixed number fraction. When reading the domino as a fraction, the student can decide if the fraction can be simplified and what that new fraction should be. Advanced students may select two dominoes and attempt to add them together as fractions, converting them to common denominators as needed. Subtraction, multiplying, and dividing fractions may also be practiced by selecting random dominoes to use as the fractions in each problem. Students should always be encouraged to write math problems in a notebook — when needed for reference, the student can easily look back at his previous work to see how he solved similar problems.

Fraction, Decimal, & Percentage Equivalents

Students with a working knowledge of fractions may move on to the decimal equivalents of fractions. Percentages are another form of fractions. Fraction, decimal, percentage, and ratio can all be thought of as “nicknames” for equivalent amounts. Arranging face-down dominoes to illustrate the problem, writing out the problems, and drawing diagrams will all help the students understand how the amounts are equivalent. Then the student may wish to use face-up dominoes as flashcards again, using the two numbers shown as a fraction and determining the decimal and percentage equivalents.

Perimeter, Area, & Volume

Using the dominoes face-up, a student can build “fences” to illustrate perimeter, or the distance around the outside of a specific shape. Count only the edges of each domino, and count each half of the long sides as a separate unit: a domino at a corner would count as 3 units: one for the short end on one side of the corner, and two along the long side of the domino on the other side of the corner. Filling in that shape solidly with “floor tiles” relates to the concept of area. Again, count each half of a domino (each separate section of dots) as one “floor tile.” Stacking multiple layers of dominoes can illustrate the 3-dimensional concept of volume. For example, an area represented by two rows of three dominoes each will contain six dominoes. Stack up several identical layers to show that each layer contains six dominoes. Multiply the area of six times the number of layers to determine the total number of dominoes used.

Play Domino Games

What better way to show that math is valuable in everyday life than to play a game of dominoes? Advanced players might enjoy the competitive element of keeping score, but those playing just for the fun of the game can proceed more quickly by simply playing their dominoes on the matching numbers and moving on to the next turn. There are a variety of domino games, so expand your knowledge base and learn several.

Line Dominoes Up on Edge for Physical Science Domino Effect

No one should go through life without lining up dominoes in curvy lines or intricate patterns and then gently pushing over the first one in line to watch all the others tumble in turn. Setting up the dominoes on end is good for honing the fine motor skills of small hand muscles — great care must be used to ensure that the dominoes don’t fall too early! Repeat as often as possible and search You-Tube for massive domino displays to enjoy!


  1. Great idea! Very Montessori.

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