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Make Mental Math the New Literacy Program in Your School

January 16, 2015

By Robyn Silbey, math education coach and consultant

When was the last time you sounded out the word “and?” or “dog?” or, for that matter, any other word in this paragraph? We take for granted that we are able to read words without having to process them. As literate individuals, we know the words and can easily read them, put them in context and glean understanding.

The same concept applies to math. The ability to know that 1 + 1 = 2, without counting your fingers or drawing a diagram, is analogous to learning sight vocabulary.

This is called mental math, and we actually use it every day. Adding 20 percent to your restaurant bill for a tip? Figuring out the lowest cost for produce at the grocery store, you’re doing some quick math in your head. That’s mental math.

Despite its practical, everyday use, mental math skills are woefully neglected in U.S. classrooms and underappreciated in a digital age where every smartphone comes loaded with a calculator. We all should be able to “read” a basic math problem, such as 1/2 off a $30 sweater without pencil and paper or a calculator.

In Singapore, students learn how to do many calculations by mental math. They start in kindergarten with number bonds, so that they easily understand the links and associations between numbers. The first year Singapore Math® was implemented in my school, I saw that the power of basic number bonds was misunderstood and underutilized.

Through professional development and coaching, we came to understand the importance of number bonds and other mental math strategies in improving math success. We have fewer students reaching for pencil and paper. We have more students confident in their math skills and progressing more quickly through complicated lessons.

As educators, we need to spend more time on helping our students deeply understand the fundamentals of math and mental math.

Both are lifelong skills that, when our students become numerically fluent, they can and will rival the best in the world.