Numerical Fluency

May 4, 2019 | Peoria IL

The term “Numerical Fluency” or “Numeracy” for short is used throughout the math world.  Numerical Fluency is to math what Literacy is to reading and writing.  Number sense and mental math, two common terms used to describe the same thing, both encompass the basic building blocks needed to master numbers. The dictionary defines them as the ability to understand and work with numbers. Math instructors describe it as the ability to solve a math problem and explain how you got it.

Here at Mathnasium we believe that a good foundation in Numerical Fluency is not only critical but required to foster a deep understanding of how math works. 

Parents have all heard how important it is to start reading to, AND with, our kids at a very early age.  Pediatricians recommend it; read to your infant and toddlers as soon, and as often as you can.

So why don’t we treat math the same way?  Why don’t we, as a culture, start doing math with our toddlers?  Children at a young age should be learning numbers and rudimentary math with the same urgency we have when we’re teaching them the alphabet.  And learning it long before they enter school.

Studies have shown a very strong, positive correlation between Numerical Fluency at a young age (preschool), and the likelihood of success later in life.  In 2007, a meta-analysis study of 35,000 preschoolers found that developing math skills early on, turns into a huge advantage for children.

“The paramount importance of beginning school with a knowledge of numbers, number order, and other rudimentary math concepts, is one of the (findings) coming out of the study” said co-author and Northwestern University researcher Greg Duncan.  “Mastery of early math skills predicts, not only future math achievement, it also predicts future reading achievement.”  The study goes on to say that the leading predictor of later achievement is school-entry math ability (followed by reading, and attention skills, in that order).  Even in children with high levels of behavioral issues! 

According to the study, these skills are shown to have more influence on future success than social skills, or introverted versus extroverted personalities.  In other words, a child’s early age problem solving skills are more important than how many friends they can make later on in life.

What, as parents, can we do to instill these very basic math skills in our kids?  The “math” part of the brain acts much more like a muscle than a memory center.  It must be exercised, strengthened and stretched like a muscle.  It loses proficiency when not used regularly.  (That’s why school aged kids lose 2 and 1/2 months of scholastic math ability over summer break.)

Start with counting.  Counting to ten –a key number in our math development.  Count to 12.  Then, count items; Popsicle sticks, spoons, flowers in a garden.  Have them count.  Then take away three, and ask how many do we have?  Show them seven spoons, and ask how many more to make ten?  And so on. These skills are essential to our 10 Buddies game we play in center. It is important to begin learning in a low stress environment where children can be free to explore and make mistakes in a way that does not affect their long term grades or confidence in a subject. 

Make games out of math.  Games are fun so kids don’t think of it as learning.  Use a deck of cards with the face cards removed.  Flip a card; what number comes up?  How many more to make ten?  To make twelve?  Flip another card, how much do you have if you double that number?  Count by different numbers.  Count by fives, tens, then count by three’s, fours, sevens, even twelves.  Count by fives starting at the number three, or starting at the number nine.  As they start grasping these number concepts, stretch their math imagination, little by little.  Introduce the concept of a half.  Half of four, half of ten.  Once they grasp that, introduce half of odd numbers.

One of my favorite games with small kids is the dice game.  Explain to the child that the two opposite sides (of any standard six-sided) die always add up to the number seven.  Knowing that, if I roll a die, and a five comes up, what’s the (unseen) number on the bottom (i.e. two)?  Now, roll two dice, and (without looking), what do the two bottom numbers add up to?  Then try three dice, etc.  This requires not just adding numbers, but adding numbers that have to be imagined, without looking.  Mental Math

These little math games do not require a lot of time.  But just a few hours each week goes a long way.


(This article was adapted from an article written by Mathnasium of Fremont.)