4/08/2014

Number Sense: Teaching Mathematical Thinking

Just like comprehension is the entire point of learning to read, number sense is the entire point of learning math. I don't know about you, but I don't have the time to walk through the grocery store using a calculator app to determine if each sale is truly a good deal. But because I have (some) number sense, I can estimate quickly as I walk through the aisles.

I don't think anyone talked about number sense when I was a kid. Math then was really focused on memorization. I remember I once failed a multiplication test  - despite being the first kid done and despite checking over my work - because I had forgotten one step in the formula I had memorized. Had anyone emphasized number sense in any of my math lessons, I probably would have realized that 470 isn't a large enough answer for 37x48. 


It wasn't until I was learning to teach math that I begin to develop number sense. I was TWENTY-FOUR when I made the connection between skip counting and multiplication. Yet I was able to do pretty well on the math portion of the SAT. Isn't that sad?

I used to joke that I had teach younger kids because I couldn't understand fourth grade math well enough to teach it. Except that I wasn't really joking. And I've heard so many people, mostly women, talk about how bad they are at math. But you know what? I think it's just that we have lousy number sense. I was lucky enough to develop mine when I learned how to teach a math curriculum that focused on number sense.

So what can parents do at home - even parents who feel like they are "bad at math" - to help their kids develop number sense?


  • Stop pushing your toddler to count to 20 or 100 or whatever. Rote counting doesn't have much bearing on future math ability.
  • Do encourage your little one to count objects. One to one correspondence (touching 1 car and saying 1, touching the next car and saying 2 and so on) is far more important. Kids under 6 should have one to one correspondence equal to their age; a 4 year old should be able to count 4 objects accurately. 
  • Sorting objects - blocks, cars, stuffed animals, rocks, whatever - is helpful, as long as you discuss how kids sorted them. Color? Size? Shape? Encourage your kids to explain their thinking.
  • Use math vocabulary and make sure kids understand what the words mean: before, after, between, more, less, difference, even, odd. For older kids, include: fraction, factor, sum, percent, addend, area, perimeter, length, volume. There's a great list for older kids here
  • Show kids how you use math every day. Talk about balancing the checkbook, calculating coupons and sales, figuring out the tip, measuring for recipes and so on. Share how you figure things out, even if it's not the "official" way you learned in school. 
  • Play games that involve math skills, like Yahtzee, dominoes, Sorry, Connect Four, Chutes and Ladders, Uno and even poker. 
  • Incorporate a few math problems or stories into your bedtime rituals. Show kids that math is just as important as reading. If coming up with your own problems intimidates you, check out these helpful books:



Amazon Affiliate links. If click on one of these and order, I will earn (a teeny bit of) money. 

Come by next Tuesday for descriptions of easy math games you can play at home. And let me know how you feel about math and number sense in the comments!



30 comments:

Masshole Mommy said...

I am SO dumb with math. I literally can't even help my first grader with his math homework - I will stick to blaming common core for that one. I barely understood regular math, so now that it's all different - forget it.

JT and Amanda said...

I love your tips! I can do a lot of these with my toddler! Thanks for sharing!

(Terry) My Journey With Candida said...

I am really, really bad when it comes to math. Just thinking about it gives me a headache.

Louida Martin said...

Math...BLAH! I'm so terrible at math! I hate it when I'm helping my daughters with their math homework.

Angelic Sinova said...

I am TERRIBLE with math! If I don't have my phone or calculator by me I'm so lost!

valmg @ Mom Knows It All said...

Terrific tips! You are right, a lot can be accomplished by just sitting with your children and playing some fun game.s

Natasha Mairs said...

I used to think that I was good at math, until my 9 year old put me to shame doing his nine times tables into the 1,000's!!

Ashley Gill said...

I hate math.. we are not friends. I especially don't like this new Core Math that is coming out.

becca said...

These books look great for teaching math skills. My son loves math class.

Pam said...

Great books for teaching math skills! Math is definitely not my favorite subject.

A Merican Punjaban PI said...

These are really great tips. Rote memorization doesn't promote the type of critical thinking skills a child needs to grow up truly intelligent. You need a more rounded education that is fun and lively and promotes their desire to learn and understand.

Fabulous Perks said...

These tips are all amazing! Thank you for sharing these books with us. Definitely going to purchase them on our next Barnes and Noble run.

Sarah-Louise Bailey said...

What some great sounding books, I used to love maths as a kid - since I've got older I've forgotten so much of it though. x

Melissa Tiffany said...

These are really great tips! It is so important that we teach our kids in a way they love so they end up loving to learn.
Tiffany

Lady Lilith said...

Love your ideas. I have matherpeices at home. It is a great book. I like it because my girls learn math and art. It makes it more interesting.

Denise Gabbard said...

I always loved math, but my daughter struggled with it so much. I wish they'd have had some fun and easy ways to help her back then.

Lawna Noe said...

I always hated math class because it was always a hard subject for me. It ended up being my favorite class in highschool though because thats where i met my husband!

Annie said...

I loved math as a kid & then high school hit & I stunk at it, haha. Great way to get kids to learn/love math :)

Kim PhilanthropicHR said...

How fun! I like that the books are bedtime reads. Great thing to get the kids to think about math even at bedtime.

Anonymous said...

Love love love bedtime math! My kids actually cry and beg for me to do it with them and the nerd/engineer in my just bursts with pride at that! Going to have to check out some of these other books.

Onica MommyFactor said...

Some really useful tips. I like the one about sorting objects. Kids learn math better when their having engaged with something fun and this tip helps.

Marielle Altenor said...

This is really great information. I never really liked math. Maybe it has to do with not having number sense as you mentioned. My hubby on the other hand can do math equations when half asleep (he might be a secret genius). I hope my son is as smart as his dad when it comes to numbers!

Casa Vilora Interiors said...

It is best to add the fun factor to math. Great tips

Liz Mays said...

Showing kids how math is used in everyday ways through those kinds of activities is a great idea. I really like counting, sorting and all that!

Nicole Brady said...

My husband has a financial background and I'm an accountant so incorporating numbers into everyday life has been something we have done since the very beginning. Whether it's teaching the kids simple math or asking them how much change they think we'll get back from the clerk at the store, we've made a point to get them to realize the importance of math in everyday life.

Gingermommy said...

One of my sons is a math wiz! Not sure why or how though. With our 5 year old, I try to incorporate numbers and counting and basic math whenever possible (Kim)

Toni Patton said...

These are great tips. I think the counting objects is a big help with little ones.

Tough Cookie Mommy said...

This is such a great way to use literacy to teach math skills. Two great skills that kids need to have.

Maria said...

These look like some great supplemental books for our family.

Amber Nelson said...

These look like great tools to help enhance math skills!