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Number Sense: What You Need to Know

At a Glance

  • Number sense is a key math ability.
  • Kids with math issues, including dyscalculia, often have weak number sense.
  • Number sense can be developed over time.

The term number sense comes up a lot when people talk about math. But what exactly does it mean? And how does it relate to kids who struggle with math? Learn more about this key ability and how it may impact your child.

What Number Sense Means

Number sense is the ability to understand relationships between single items and groups of items. It allows us to know that seven means one group of seven items.

It also allows us to understand symbols that represent quantities. For instance, 7 means the same thing as seven. As our number sense develops, we’re able to make number comparisons. For example, 12 is greater than 10, and 4 is half of 8.

Some people have stronger number sense than others. Kids with math issues like dyscalculia often have very weak number sense. That can create challenges in school and in everyday life.

How Kids Use Number Sense to Learn Math

Kids need number sense to do math operations. They have to be able to manipulate quantities when they add, subtract, multiply and divide.

Kids with strong number sense 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. They also recognize how to combine groups or break a group into smaller parts.

These kids also get that symbols (numerals) can represent real items. If there’s a pile of seven beads, for example, they can easily translate that into the numeral 7.

Weak Number Sense and Trouble With Math Operations

If your child has weak number sense, 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 also 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 3 to the pile of 7 makes it a pile of 10.

Weak number sense 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 than by adding them.

In the same way, weak number sense 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.

Weak Number Sense and Trouble With Math-Related Concepts

Trouble with number sense can make it hard for your child to grasp key concepts like distance and time. That’s because these concepts rely on numerals to symbolize amounts.

It may also cause him to 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 number sense, 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 like they do 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 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.
  • 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, there are ways you can help him build this ability. 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 conversation that start with 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.

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.

Key Takeaways

  • Number sense allows us to know that numerals stand for an amount of something.
  • Weak number sense makes it hard for kids to grasp concepts like distance and time.
  • You can build number-sense practice into everyday tasks to help your child learn.
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