What is Number Sense? A Guide for Parents and Teachers

What is number sense?

Let’s learn the definition of number sense and see how it relates to you (as a preschool teacher/ parent) and your child by answering this question: What is number sense?

What is number sense?

Number Sense Defined

Number sense is a group of skills that enables children to use and understand numbers. It includes the following skills:

  • Rote counting
  • Counting objects with one-to-one correspondence
  • Comparing groups of objects to decide which is more or less, or if they are equal
  • Recognizing and identifying numerals
  • Reading and writing numerals
  • Matching numerals to a set of concrete objects
  • Identifying the number that comes before, after, or in between
  • Arranging numbers from least to greatest/ greatest to least
  • Identifying cardinal numbers
  • Recognizing the words/ phrases “put together”, “add to” and “in all” that indicates the act of adding whole numbers
  • Recognizing the words “take away”, “less”, and “are left” that indicates the act of subtracting whole numbers
  • Adding quantities
  • Subtracting quantities
  • Solving simple addition and subtraction problems
  • Recognizing and identifying visual situations that require addition and subtraction
  • Grouping, representing and counting sets of equal quantity (beginning of multiplication)
  • Separating and representing groups of equal quantities (beginning of division)
  • Dividing a whole into parts (fraction)

Wooh! That IS A LOT!

That just shows how important it is to master number sense.

Poor Number Sense

Number sense is pretty much the foundation of a person’s math skills. All other math skills that a person will learn in the future will only make sense and they will be able to use if they have a strong number sense.

To illustrate, say a child has learned to rote count. He can count from 1 to 10 in 10 seconds (impossible, I know) BUT he doesn’t display an understanding of one-to-one correspondence. His rote counting will then be in vain because he can’t transfer that skill to a practical task. 

Unfortunately, rote counting can only go so far. 

Another example would be a child who can rote count, recognize and write numbers but hasn’t quite the ability to identify numbers that come before, after or in between. That child would most likely struggle with ordinal numbers, basic operations, and advanced mathematics. 

Also, lack of number sense could pose a problem on practical living such as queuing (ordinal numbers), comparing quantities by weight or size, dividing portions and allocating shares.

Not to mention doing mental math- a very useful skill when shopping!

I struggle with number sense. I can’t do mental math even if my life depends on it. I’m wholly dependent on calculators. Also, distance and measurement are quite tricky for me. 

Guess one can’t have it all!

I’m dependent on my calculator because I have poor number sense. 🙁

Strong Number Sense

On the other hand, people with strong number sense are generally at an advantage. There are just so many practical areas where they can apply this skill.

First of all, mental math is a breeze. They easily picture quantity in their heads and solve basic operations without a calculator (or even pen and paper.)

Such a handy skill, don’t you think?

And I also observed that people who have a good grasp of number sense find it easy to calculate distance versus time. So planning trips (at least the driving part) is quicker. 

What is number sense?

How to Teach Number Sense

Since number sense is a group of skills, there is no one way to teach it. Add the fact that each individual has his/her learning style. So that must be taken into consideration as well. 

As a professional teacher, I recommend having varied activities to easily tackle all learning competencies under the number sense umbrella. 

It’s also advisable to keep reviewing even if you’re already past that lesson in the curriculum. Provide your child with opportunities to practice learned skills. 

Take advantage of spiral learning. Make sure your child gets similar experiences repeated many times, in different settings/ conditions and with different people. 

I think this is a good teaching principle to live by. 

Of course, remember to make it fun and engaging!

Now let’s go to specifics. Below are ideas on how you can teach number sense at school and/or at home. 

At School

1. Make Use of Learning Centers or Corners

Set up learning centers in the classroom where your students can work on number sense activities on their own or with their friends. 

Sample activities are:

  • Guess How Many Jars- This is good for children to practice estimation.
  • Comparing Booth- Set up a table with different groups of objects of various sizes (e.g. 2 big blocks, 2 small blocks, 7 medium-sized rocks, 7 marbles, etc…) Let the students count the group of objects and compare them with another group of objects with the same amount but of different sizes. Help them “see” and understand that the size may seem more but they are the same in quantity. 

2. Practice During Circle Time

Make it a regular part of circle time by designating a couple of minutes working on some number skills like:

  • Count the days the children have gone to school using lego counters
  • Have a “special number” or “number of the day”
  • Make ordinal numbers part of your morning talk. If you have schedule flashcards posted, you may put ordinal number cards beside it so the children can “see” the order or flow of the day. 

3. Snack Time as Lesson Time

During snack time you may ask students to compare what they’re eating. Use words such as more, less and equal. 

4. Queue to Learn

Assign each child a number when cueing up. This is a great practice that helps during transition periods like when they need to go from one part of the school to another. 

I find this an effective way to teach ordinal numbers. As early as the first day of school, I already assign my students their numbers and then I tape ordinal number flashcards on the floor so they know their place. By the time we get to ordinal numbers in the curriculum, my students have already mastered it so I just discuss it in passing, Brilliant right?

5. Count every chance you get

Grab every opportunity to count with your students. As you go from one room to another, ask them to count objects around them. Ask them to count their steps. Even, their breath!

At Home

1. Count, Count, and Count Some More

Make counting a regular part of your day. Count anything and everything with your child. 

It’s a simple yet effective way to reinforce number sense. 

2. Compare and Contrast

Next time you go out for snacks, you may compare your order with your child. You may compare your one doughnut with your child’s three munchkins. His munchkins may be small compared to your doughnut, but he has more if you compare by how many. 

3. Work on Estimation

If you have a cookie jar at home, let your child guess how many cookies are in the jar. 

You may count the cookies together and see if her estimate is close to the actual number. 

If you do this regularly, you’ll see how your child gets better at estimating. 

Oh, and do give your child a cookie as a reward for her efforts!

4. Commute and Compute

As you take a drive with your child, ask him to keep track of how long it takes to get to your destination. Keep him aware of the distance and time by talking about it. 

There you go. Those are my tried and tested ways to teach number sense to children. They are simple enough that it can be done without so many preparations. 

Teacher’s Note:

Developing number sense does not happen over time. The key here is consistency and patience. Remember to make each activity fun and engaging so as not to frustrate your budding learner. 

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The Teaching Aunt- Teacher Nessy

Hi! My name is Nessy. I’m a preschool teacher and I’ve just recently added “doting aunt” to my title. I have tons of teacher-approved and child-friendly activities (as young as toddler years!) that I would like to share with you. Happy reading!

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