How to Improve Number Sense in Upper Elementary

Number sense gets a lot of attention in the lower grades. And I’m not going to lie, once I moved up from first grade to fourth grade I kinda thought that all my students would come to me with a solid number sense foundation…. boy, was I wrong.

If you teach upper elementary, chances are you’ve encountered a few (or a lot) of students who still use their fingers to add or subtract, or students who don’t have their multiplication facts memorized, or students who don’t really understand how our place value system works.

All of these are symptoms of students who have poor number sense.

But don’t worry, there is good news. There are a ton of things you can do in your upper elementary classroom to help your students improve their number sense.

Before I share my three favorite ways to improve number sense in upper elementary, let’s make sure we are on the same page with what number sense is.

What is Number Sense?

Number sense is a student’s ability to think fluidly about numbers.

This means…

  • Students have a solid understanding of the base 10 system.

  • Students can do mental math with ease.

  • Students understand relationships between numbers.

  • Students can easily explain why something makes sense mathematically.

  • Students feel confident with math.

Number sense is the foundation for everything that is taught in math. It’s important that anytime you are teaching a math concept, you are giving your students meaningful ways to develop their number sense.

Here are three ways you can help your students improve their number sense.

Number of the Day Routine

I love doing a number of the day routine in upper elementary. It is a quick way to review key place value skills like comparing numbers, rounding, place value, etc. The repetition of the routine helps students solidify their place value understanding. Most of the questions I include in my number of the day template can be done using mental math which helps improve students ability to think fluidly about numbers.

Here are some variations to this routine:

  • Take your number of the day and turn it into number of the week.

  • Differentiate the number. Provide three different numbers all with a different number of digits and let your students select which number they want to use.

  • Let your students build the routine. At the start of each week, you could have your students decide what questions will be included on your number of the day form.

  • Change number of the day to decimal of the day or fraction of the day to cover a variety of skills (Grab my freebie below to get a template for both of these options.)

You can grab my number of the day template for free by filing out the form below. I’ll send it to you in an e-mail shortly!

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    Number Talks

    Number talks can be another way to help students develop and improve their number sense.

    A number talk focuses on problem solving and critical thinking. The primary goal of a number talk is to get students thinking and talking about strategies they used to solve a math problem. The goal is not necessarily for students to solve the problem correctly (although that is an added bonus). The real goal of number talks is for students to be able to explain the steps they took to solve the problem and explain why they took that specific approach.

    Tips for Number Talks:

    • Post a word problem, expression, or math picture

    • Have students solve individually (encourage students to solve more than one way)

    • Have students discuss with a partner or talk about it as a whole group

    • Focus conversation on the process students used, not the solution

    Number talk routines help students realize that many times there is more than one way to solve a problem and it helps them learn how to justify and explain the thinking behind their answer.

    I loved using number talks with my fourth grade students. If you want to check out the set of number talks I used with my students, you can check out the product in my TPT store.

    Math Games

    Students love playing games, and with the right ones, they can build and improve their number sense without even knowing it. If you have a deck of cards or a set of dice, there are TONS of games that you can have your students play that will help them improve their number sense.

    Here are some of my students favorites:

    • Secret Number - You can play this with the whole class or students can play it with a partner. The goal is to create the largest number. First decide on the number of digits in your number. Have every one playing write spaces for that many digits so they know how many spaces they have to fill. Each time you roll the die, you have to place that number in one of your spaces. So if you are making a 6 digit number you will roll the dice six times. This is fun for students because they usually know that they want a six in the largest place and a one in the lowest place, but they can’t always predict what will be rolled. Students have to think critically about the best place to put each digit rolled to give them the best chance of getting the largest number. Its always a great game to play if you just have a few extra minutes and need to squeeze in something meaningful.

    • First to 500 - This one can be modified in a couple different ways. For this one you either need a deck of cards or at least two dice (it works best to have some larger numbers) The goal is for a student to be the first one to reach a sum of 500. They will draw two cards at a time, multiply the numbers on the two cards together and then keep a running record of the products. The first one to 500 wins (or you could lower the number to 200 or even 100). I like this game because it really helps students improve their mental math for both multiplication and addition.

    So there you have it. Three super easy (but effective) ways to build number sense in your upper elementary students. Which one are you going to get started with today?

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    Get started with Number of the Day!
    Grab your FREE templates here!

    *Includes Number of the Day, Decimal of the Day and Fraction of the Day templates

    *Help your students improve their number sense

    *Routines take just minutes to implement each day

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      Looking for more ideas to build students’ number sense? Check out these posts to learn new strategies and get a few awesome freebies to use with students as you work to develop number sense in all students!

      Strategies for Developing Number Sense with Decimals | Mix and Math

      3 Tried & True Tips for Developing Number Sense  | Tried & True Teaching Tools

      Steps to Build Number Sense | The Owl Teacher

      Sara Marye