You may hear people use the term number sense when they’re talking about math. But what exactly does it mean? And how does it relate to kids who struggle with math? Learn about the key skills covered under this term, and how to help your child develop them.
What Number Sense Really Means
What people sometimes call number sense is really a group of skills that allow kids to work with numbers. These include the ability to:
- Understand quantities.
- Grasp concepts like more and less, or larger and smaller.
- Recognize relationships between single items and groups of items (for instance, seven means one group of seven items).
- Understand symbols that represent quantities (for instance, 7 means the same thing as seven).
- Make number comparisons (for instance, 12 is greater than 10, and 4 is half of 8).
- Understand the order of numbers in a list: 1st, 2nd, 3rd, etc.
Some people have stronger number sense than others. Kids with dyscalculia often struggle with these very basic skills. That can create challenges in school and in everyday life.
Using These Skills to Learn Math
Math requires kids to be able to manipulate quantities when they add, subtract, multiply and divide. And that requires having strong number-sense skills.
Kids who have those skills can quickly compare groups of items to know which group is larger and which is smaller. They understand what it means to increase or decrease the number of items in a group. And they recognize how to combine groups or break them into smaller parts.
They also get that symbols (numerals) can represent real items. For example, if there’s a pile of seven beads, they can easily translate that into the numeral 7.
Trouble With Math Operations
If your child has weak number-sense skills, he may struggle with even basic math operations. He may not understand what it means to add to or subtract from a group of items, for instance.
Take the pile of seven beads. If you remove two of them, your child might not realize that the number of beads has shrunk. He might not recognize that subtracting the beads means the group of seven is now a group of five.
Likewise, if you add three beads to the pile, he might not realize the group of beads has grown. And he might not know that adding three to the pile of seven makes it a pile of 10.
Weak number-sense skills can also make it hard for your child to do multiplication. He may not see that it’s simpler to combine items from several groups by multiplying them rather than by adding them.
In the same way, that weakness can impact his ability to do division. It can keep your child from knowing that division is the simplest way to break up groups into their component parts.
Trouble With Math-Related Concepts
Math operations aren’t the only area impacted. Your child may also have trouble grasping key concepts like distance and time. That’s because these concepts rely on numerals to symbolize amounts.
He may also struggle with measurement. The task of measuring requires a good understanding of the relationships between parts and wholes.
How the School Can Help
Kids can develop these key skills, but it’s not a quick process. It happens slowly over time with lots of practice working in math. This makes it challenging for schools to “work on” number-sense skills the same way they work on specific reading, writing and math skills.
When a child struggles with math, schools often focus first on reteaching the specific math skills being taught in class. The teacher might then ask the child to do extra worksheets. Or they may use computer-based activities for extra practice.
This approach often doesn’t work for kids with weak number sense, however. In that case, schools usually turn to intervention through RTI or MTSS processes. With intervention systems, kids typically:
- Work with “manipulatives” like blocks and rods to understand the relationship among amounts.
- Do exercises in which they match number symbols to quantities.
- Get a lot of practice estimating.
- Learn strategies for checking an answer to see if it’s reasonable.
- Talk with their teacher about the strategies they use to solve problems.
- Get help correcting mistakes they make along the way.
For many kids with weak number sense, intervention is enough to catch up. But kids with dyscalculia may need further support. They may need to be evaluated for special education to get the help they need.
How You Can Help Your Child at Home
If your child is struggling with number-sense skills, there are ways you can help him build them. It’s a good idea to start with the basics.
- Practice counting and grouping objects. Then add to, subtract from or divide the groups into smaller groups to practice operations. You can also combine groups to show multiplication. Try matching numerals with quantities of objects, too.
- Work on estimating. Build questions into everyday conversations, using phrases like “About how many” or “About how much.”
- Talk about relationships among quantities. Ask your child to use words like more and less to compare things.
- Build in opportunities to discuss things like time and money. For example, you could ask your child to keep track of how long it takes to drive or walk to the grocery store. Then compare it to how long it takes to get to his school. Ask which takes longer.
It’s important not to jam all these activities into a short period of time. It will take time for your child to develop number sense, and you don’t want him to become frustrated. Try them when it’s convenient, over a period of months. Repeat activities, but leave time in between.
Find out how different learning and attention issues can cause trouble with math. Talk to your child’s teacher about possible supports, and ask about the math program used in the classroom. It can also help to learn about the intervention systems your child’s school uses.