You may hear people use the term number sense when they’re talking about math. But what does it mean? And how does it relate to kids who struggle with math? Learn about number-sense skills, and how to help kids develop them.
Number sense is a group of skills that allow kids to work with numbers. It includes skills like:
Grasping concepts like more and less, and larger and smaller.
Recognizing relationships between single items and groups of items (seven means one group of seven items).
Understanding symbols that represent quantities (7 means the same thing as seven).
Making number comparisons (12 is greater than 10, and four is half of eight).
Understanding the order of numbers in a list: 1st, 2nd, 3rd, etc.
Some people have stronger number sense than others. But struggling with number sense can lead to challenges in school and in everyday life.
Trouble with number sense
People who struggle with number sense can have trouble with basic math operations. They may not understand what it means to add to or subtract from a group of items, for instance.
Imagine a pile of seven beads. If you take away two of them, students with poor number sense might not realize that the number of beads has shrunk. They 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, they might not realize the group of beads has gotten bigger. And they might not know that adding three to the pile of seven makes it a pile of 10.
Trouble with number sense can also make it hard to do multiplication and division. Students may not grasp that it’s simpler to combine items from several groups by multiplying them rather than by adding them. Or that division is the simplest way to break up groups into their component parts.
It can also make it hard to understand concepts like distance and time. That’s because these concepts rely on numerals to symbolize amounts. The same goes for measurement. The task of measuring requires a good understanding of the relationships between parts and wholes.
Kids can develop these key skills, but it takes time and practice. 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 kids may use computer-based activities for extra practice.
This approach often doesn’t work for kids with weak number sense, though. 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 relationships between amounts.
Do exercises that involve matching number symbols to quantities.
Get a lot of practice estimating.
Learn strategies for checking an answer to see whether 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 some kids need more 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 struggles with number sense, 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 between quantities. Ask your child to use words like more and less to compare things.
Build in opportunities to talk about 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 with how long it takes to get to school. Ask which takes longer.
Try not to jam all these activities into a short period of time. It takes time for kids to develop number sense, and you don’t want them to get frustrated. Work on the activities when it’s convenient, over a period of months. Repeat activities, but leave time in between.