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  • by Blaine Helwig

What does “Numerical Fluency" mean?

Updated: Jan 25, 2022

In the world of public education vocabulary – terminology and words often possess multiple definitions and/or subjective definitions that all too often result in ambiguity and misunderstanding in conveying actions. There are many words and terms all educators use to subjectively describe a condition or a thing in public education, and of course, I am just as guilty as the next person. I am aware when I use common education words it means something different to my spouse, also a principal, than it does to me. For example, public education words without objective meaning include: efficacy, high expectations, accountability, mastery, fluency, culture and proficiency.

In August at the start of the new academic year, a school faculty gathers in the library for a week of professional development. The previous school year’s academics are presented and their school’s standardized math scores are not only low, but they are lower in comparison to other elementary schools in the State with similar student demographics. Hence, the school principal informs the faculty that a schoolwide math initiative will begin at the onset of the school year to ensure students are numerically fluent. The staff is quiet until one teacher raises their hand and asks the principal the question below.

“What does ‘Numerical Fluency’ mean?”

The principal is well prepared for her staff as she has anticipated this situation. She picks up a stack of paper and passes them out to each table in the room. The handouts are from a curriculum company and provide the following information on numeracy and numerical fluency:

The phrases “numeracy and numerical fluency” are often bandied about as the means to remedy student mathematical skill deficiencies. A pragmatic understanding of numerical fluency may be comparable to reading fluency; as poor reading fluency negatively impacts a child’s reading comprehension, poor numerical fluency negatively impacts comprehension and success in solving mathematical word problems. Many language arts teachers have observed that students possessing poor basic phonetic decoding and sight word recognition skills read so slowly that they are unable to understand the very sentence they just completed reading. Poor numerical fluency has the same effect in mathematics. When the child’s numerical ability is lacking, they are unable to competently solve a real world multi-part math problem. A viable and functional definition of numerical fluency is the ability to work both mentally and fluidly with numbers in a variety of mathematical situations commonly occurring in everyday life.

The principal tells the staff that a committee of teachers evaluated and decided to purchase a numerical fluency program to help guide them through this process. She reminds them it will be a learning experience for not only the students but also for the staff, and after reviewing the school math data, it is clear that what we have been doing in mathematics has not been effective. We need to change and focus our efforts to make a positive difference for our students.


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