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The Preview: Education

Screen children for math delays early with the Number Sense Screener

Little boy looking uncertainly at colorful beads on an abacus
Get a handle on students' understanding of numbers and help them get on track for math success

The majority of children enter kindergarten with a fundamental understanding of basic math concepts. This intuition is called number sense—described by Nancy Krasa & Sara Shunkwiler in Number Sense and Number Nonsense as "confidence with quantities" and "a reliable mental picture of how [numbers] relate to each other." For 3– to 6–year-olds, number sense includes the ability to

  • recognize small quantities

  • count items in a set up to 5

  • grasp that the final number counted represents how many are in a set

  • discriminate between small sums (4 is greater than 3, 2 is less than 5)

  • alter sets of 5 by adding or taking away items

Research shows that number sense strongly predicts math achievement through at least the third grade. For children who leave kindergarten failing to grasp the rudiments of basic math operations, early struggles put them at a disadvantage as they enter first grade.

The message is clear: As early as kindergarten, we need to identify and start helping children who struggle with number sense. With the new Number Sense Screener™ K–1, Research Edition (NSS™)—a research-based, 29-item screener designed for teachers and other education professionals—you can catch math struggles early so that students with low number sense don't lag behind at the start of elementary school.

What does NSS evaluate?

NSS examines six key numerical competencies:

  • Counting skills. As Sally Moomaw points out in Teaching Mathematics in Early Childhood, accurate counting is an essential skill that predicts later success in elementary school math. Counting items in a small collection should be relatively simple for children by the late fall of kindergarten.

  • NSS can help you meet national and state standards for math in kindergarten, including Common Core State Standards for Mathematics and the NCTM (National Council for Teachers of Mathematics) focal points in the area of numbers and operations

    Number recognition. Most children can easily recognize the numbers 1–10 by the late fall of kindergarten, but some students have a more difficult time with 11–19 because of the oddities in our naming system (e.g., the nonconforming numbers 11 and 12, thirteen instead of "three-teen," fifteen instead of "five-teen"). Because of these inconsistencies, some children may require extra attention to master the numbers 11–19.

  • Number comparisons. One of the pillars of good number sense is recognizing the linear nature of numbers. NSS has you ask comparison questions like What number comes right after 7? and Which is bigger or more, 5 or 4? The majority of kindergartners understand that each number is one more than the number preceding it and one less than the number following it. Mastering this concept allows children to perform simple addition and subtraction problems and easily make magnitude comparisons without the visual cue of physical quantities.

  • Nonverbal calculation. Another key numerical competency is the ability to do simple addition and subtraction problems without the assistance of verbal number words. NSS has you present a series of simple addition and subtraction problems (2+1, 3+2, 4+3, 3-1) using movable dots on a white mat.

  • Story problems. To measure the child's ability to extract mathematics out of a story and use that information to complete an addition or subtraction problem, NSS prompts you to read a story out loud at a slow, steady pace, and have the child respond in the method that is most comfortable for him or her (draw an answer, write an answer in combination with drawing, point to the number list, or count on their fingers).

  • Number combinations. To gauge a child's ability to manipulate small written number combinations, you'll read combinations and point to the numbers and the plus or minus symbols (for example, you'll ask, How much is 2 + 1? while touching both numbers and the plus sign).

How NSS works

NSS, developed by Nancy Jordan and Joseph Glutting, with Nancy Dyson, is easy to use and doesn't require a major time commitment—about 15 minutes per child, and about 5 minutes to score. It is administered in the fall of kindergarten, the spring of kindergarten, and again in the fall of first grade. To conduct the screening:

1. Show the child the picture in the Stimulus Book

2. Follow the instructions in the Quick Script

3. Record the child's answers on the Record Sheet

4. Calculate scores and use results to target interventions

5. Re-screen to monitor progress and adjust interventions

NSS Stimulus Book sample page NSS Quick Script sample script NSS Record Sheet sample NSS Record Sheet sample NSS Stimulus Book sample page

Get Fast Facts about NSS!

How do I use the results of NSS?

Once you've identified the areas your students need extra help in, incorporate activities to strengthen those areas:

  • NSS in the classroom

    Three years ago, Peggy Bourke—math facilitator for K–2 at Crow Island School in Winnetka, IL—received a grant from her school district and went in search of a research-based screener to help identify kindergartners at risk for math struggles. As one of three math facilitators at the elementary schools in her district, she believes strongly in the importance of early math intervention.

    "For 40 years," she points out, "we have been doing early reading intervention but, for the most part, schools have not even begun to take a look at the need for early math intervention." Ms. Bourke learned about Nancy Jordan's work with the Number Sense Screener and has been using the screener ever since.

    The math facilitators use NSS in three ways:

    1. to screen for "at risk" students so that they can implement math interventions for them
    2. to get a baseline for all of the students for progress monitoring purposes (they screen three times a year)
    3. to screen for students who "might need more of a challenge than our curriculum offers"

    They have found NSS to be a user-friendly screener that provides a great deal of information about each student who takes it. Because teachers are spending time with each student, they are able to make observations over and above what the scores tell them.

    "Once we know which students need help," Ms. Bourke explains, "we have been able to provide them services above and beyond their regular math time. We also now know whether we need to plan high-end activities for students who have a high score on NSS."

    She credits the developers of NSS with providing a research-based tool that makes early math intervention a reality, and is encouraged that schools are starting to give math the same early attention that reading has received.

    Counting skills. Work creative counting practice into your everyday classroom routines as one kindergarten teacher did when she used teddy bear shapes to count the number of days in class, in this anecdote from Teaching Mathematics in Early Childhood.

  • Number recognition. Use tactile numbers made of sandpaper, yarn, or pipe cleaners—as illustrated in this activity from From Tutor Scripts to Talking Sticks—as a fun way to strengthen number recognition for students.

  • Number comparisons. Students who struggle in this area find their comprehension greatly aided by activities and board games that feature pictorial representations of number lines. Try path games with your students like this one in Teaching Mathematics in Early Childhood. The process of moving a game piece along a series of marked spaces helps children develop their own mental number line.

  • Nonverbal calculation. Have children manipulate first smaller and then larger quantities of objects on their own. Your students should have hands-on experience with the materials and not just watch as you work. Use the objects to help children grasp that numbers are made up of sets of smaller numbers.

  • Story problems. To help students grasp story problems, think beyond math textbooks and use storybooks your students already love. In this sample lesson plan from Cowboys Count, Monkeys Measure, and Princesses Problem Solve by Jane Wilburne & colleagues, you'll see how the storybook Lion's Lunch can be mined for story problems that boost students' math skills.

  • Number combinations. Create a manipulatives box, such as this one in From Tutor Scripts to Talking Sticks, with engaging materials children can use to practice their basic addition and subtraction skills.


School districts nationwide have begun to realize the importance of improving children's number sense in kindergarten so that they don't struggle to catch up with peers in later grades. Use the NSS to strengthen children's skills and help build their number sense for a lifetime of math achievement.

This article features excerpts and downloads from the following resources:

NSS User's Guide, K-1, Research Edition

Number Sense and Number Nonsense: Understanding the Challenges of Learning Math

Teaching Mathematics in Early Childhood

From Tutor Scripts to Talking Sticks: 100 Ways to Differentiate Instruction in K-12 Inclusive Classrooms Cowboys Count, Monkeys Measure, and Princesses Problem Solve: Building Early Math Skills Through Storybooks

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