Developing Number Sense: A New Way to Teach Number Sets to Young Learners

If your kids and students are having trouble understanding numbers, it might be the way you’re teaching them. According to the article “Helping Children Understand Numbers,” the process of how we learn numbers is still very much a mystery, but maybe a little less so. The numerals we use today are relatively new, only having been invented about four or five thousand years ago. The short history of math suggests to researchers that our brains haven’t had time to fully evolve to processing these numerals and that math must be an invention of culture.

But, the evolution of math skills had to start somewhere. It’s believed that we do have an innate sense for math that is referred to as “the number sense”: a foundation of mathematics that stems from vision and reasoning. In this new study, researchers at Stanford University found why children learning numbers have a difficult time connecting numbers to words, and therefore understanding sets of things, and how teachers can fix the problem.

Researchers explain their finding as such: When learning numbers, children don’t know how to differentiate between “three” and “bears” in a set of “three bears.” Because our brains learn by guessing, giving a learning brain the word “three” before “bears” sets up an irrelevant expectation. In the study, researchers tried two methods to train two groups of students. One group of kids saw no improvement in their number sense when teachers used “look, there are three bears.” However, the group that was told “look at the bears, there are three!” saw 30% improvement on being able to identify small sets after this single, short session.

“The development of number sense in early childhood is the best predictor educationalists have of later mathematical ability.” What do you think of the findings? Do you think you’ll try a new approach to teaching numbers at home or in your classroom? Share with us in the comment box below.



“Helping Children Understand Numbers.” US News. August 3, 2011. Accessed on August 10, 2011. <>

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