Number Sense

› Number Sense

Number sense begins very early and must be a focus of primary math. This is the solid foundation in math that all kids need.

A sense of numbers is critical for primary students to develop math problem solving skills.

The National Council of Teachers of Mathematics increasingly calls for districts to give more attention to building this skill, and studies have found that number sense accounts for 66% of the variance in first grade math achievement.  They council (USA 1989)  have also addressed five critical areas that are characteristic of students who have good number sense:

  1. Number Meaning
  2. Relationships Between Numbers
  3. Number Magnitude
  4. Operations Involving Numbers
  5. Referents for Numbers/Quantities (referents are words or phrases that denote what something stands for)

In a study by Jordan, Locuniak, Ramineni and Kaplan entitled Predicting First-Grade Math Achievement from Developmental Number Sense Trajectories, it was shown that "early sense of numbers (sic) is a reliable and powerful predictor of math achievement at the end of first grade."


infographic about math skills and number sense

Sources Cited

  • Hope, J. & Sherril, J. (1987). Characteristics of unskilled and skilled mental calculators.  Journal for Research in Mathematics Education, 18, 98-111.
  • Ross, S. (1989). Parts, wholes, and place value: A developmental view. Arithmetic Teacher , 36, 47-51.

What is Number Sense in Children?

Having a sense of how numbers work is a very broad topic that covers all numerical thinking. At it's core, it is making sense of math concepts and mathematical reasoning.

Operationally, it is counting skills, having number knowledge, using estimation, and the ability to use problem solving strategies.

Knowing the why of how numbers work is of utmost importance, and children should not be shown the how until they understand the "why."   Techniques such as using ten frames and  using concrete models to show place value concepts are daily necessities for young children.

Inquiry-based approaches (such as math dice games) to teaching children mathematics should be utilized as primary teaching methods in the early grades.

This is not to say that explicit teaching of sense of numbers skills is not essential, especially for those students from low socio-economic status.  We absolutely need to do this.

It is saying that teachers should provide multiple opportunities for students to experience numbers and make connections before putting the pencil to paper.


Activities for Building Number Sense

I've written some really fun activities, ideas (and a free ebook!) for teaching number sense.  Like, Tweet or +1 to unlock it all (or go check out some Halloween number sense activities).