Kiss those Math Headaches GOODBYE!

Archive for the ‘Number Sense’ Category


Hi folks,

Now that summer has officially begun, I’m enjoying a certain distance from the heat of the school year, and that distance gives me a chance to reflect.

One set of ideas that my mind keeps poking around again and again is this:  a) the weakness in actual number sense among today’s elementary and secondary students,
b) the concomitant modern focus on teaching Number Sense during these school years, and c) the now-rampant overuse of calculators.

I find it interesting that Number Sense has become a “big important new topic” that math instructors are required to teach. I also find it interesting that the new focus on Number Sense has been growing steadily at the very same time that students in so many parts of our country have become more and more calculator dependent.

Could there be a connection?

Yes, undoubtedly! Back when I set up shop tutoring math, K-12, in 1990, Santa Fe (NM) Public School students were not permitted to use calculators willy-nilly. Because of that, our students were not calculator-dependent. Students were expected to know the truths of arithmetic forwards and backwards, and wouldn’t have dreamed of reaching for a calculator to find the value of something so simple as, say, 7 + 5, as happens routinely today. Yes, routinely! I should know; I’m a professional math tutor.

What’s more, I’d say that students in the 1990s generally understood concepts such as odd and even numbers, prime and composite numbers, how to prime factorize, how to find the GCF and the LCM, and the many other skills that are part of the “new area of math instruction we call Number Sense.

That’s because teachers used to require students to use their minds to work with numbers. Students used to grind out 7/18 + 5/12 by hand, not by pressing buttons. They used to figure out the LCM of 22 and 30 by using an algorithm rather than by tapping an app. They used to prime factorize numbers using the good old factor tree and simplify radicals by thinking rather than by pressing a sequence of buttons and scrolling through the numbers flashing across their LCDs.

You can probably see where I’m going with this. Today’s math students have become overly calculator dependent. That dependence on calculators, in turn, has made them deficient at the skills in the topic area we call Number Sense. And precisely because today’s students are so deficient at number sense, precisely because they have been allowed to become so dependent on their e-devices rather than on their mental devices, curriculum designers have devised this whole new area of math, Number Sense, that now gets taught as its own “thing” rather than being an integral thread of everyday math instruction. Number sense used to be something students developed naturally, by mentally working with numbers, day-in, day-out, using paper and pencil and mental math.

Lest I be called a Luddite, I’m not saying that calculators have no place in the math curriculum. But as a tutor who has helped students with math for some 27 years now, I can say with certainty that today’s students’ innate ability to work with numbers, play with numbers and calculate with numbers has been dulled and frankly allowed to atrophy because calculators have become an all-too-easy, all-too-available crutch.

In this way, math curricula and math educators who overly promote calculator usage have done a great disservice to students. The good news, though, is that  teachers could correct course without too much trouble.

Teachers could still allow students to use calculators, quite appropriately, for higher-order processes — such as graphing two functions to see where they intersect, and to see if the answer found that way comports with the answer attained by solving the systems simultaneously by hand — while at the same time disallowing calculator usage for arithmetic calculations.

I’d like to see teachers get their students back to basics in this way because, from my perspective, we’re raising a new generation of students, many of whom have little ability to calculate mentally and little understanding of how numbers work. As a result, these children (soon-to-be adults) are unnecessarily vulnerable.

They’re vulnerable because they cannot tell if they are receiving the correct change from a cashier. They’re vulnerable because they cannot tell if their car or home interest payment is correct. And they’re vulnerable in a larger sense because they lack the ability to easily think numerically, i.e., quantitatively. And when people lack the fundamental ability to think quantitatively, even having a calculator won’t save them in many situations. That’s because they might not even know what operation to do to find a solution in a real-world situation.

But in an even more direct and practical sense, the new calculator-dependent students are vulnerable because they have been set up to struggle mightily in their college math classes. That’s because nearly all U.S. colleges require students to take math tests without using calculators!

So I say let’s get back to basics, and let’s do it in a smart way. Let’s continue to let students use calculators for higher-order thinking skills, but let’s disallow calculators for ALL arithmetic so that students will be required to once again become strong in those critical fundamental skills and so that they will re-gain the natural form of Number Sense that is their right and their due.







“Algebra Survival” Program, v. 2.0, has just arrived!

The Second Edition of both the Algebra Survival Guide and its companion Workbook are officially here!

Check out this video for a full run-down on the new books, and see how — for a limited time — you can get them for a great discount at the Singing Turtle website.


Here’s the PDF with sample pages from the books: SAMPLER ASG2, ASW2.

And here’s the website where you can check out the books more fully and purchase the books.








Find the GCF for 3 or More Numbers

Find the GCF, your teacher says … not just for 2 numbers, but for 5 of them.

And yes, you need to do it by prime factorizing.

Can’t you just hear the students’ groans?!

But what if there were a way to do this without prime factorizing? Could it really be?


What I’m about to teach you is a technique that lets you find the GCF of as many numbers as you wish, and with much greater ease than the old factoring technique. (by the way, I don’t really hate the factoring technique … it actually teaches you a lot about numbers … but it can get annoying!).

So why don’t they teach this new way in school? No idea. But let’s just focus on the technique because once you do, you’ll be so much faster at finding the GCF …  you’ll be amazing your friends and your teacher, too!

So just kick back, watch the video — and learn …. then do the practice problems at the end of the video, to become a whiz! And remember, if you ever want extra help in the form of tutoring, I’m available — worldwide — thanks to the power of online videoconferencing.


— Josh




Find the GCF for 2 Numbers

Get the GCF for these two numbers, your teacher says.

How, you ask.

Easy, your teacher replies. Do what I told you yesterday.

But let’s say you don’t remember. Or let’s say you don’t like the technique your teacher used, telling you to prime factorize the numbers … well then you’re in luck because I’m going to show you another way to find the GCF, one that is more intuitive and easier than the prime factoring technique. So just sit back and watch the following video. Then do the practice problems at the end of the video. And you’ll know something that even your teacher probably doesn’t know … a thoroughly original way to find the GCF of two numbers.




How to find the GCF of 3+ Numbers — FAST … no prime factorizing

Suppose you need to find the GCF of three or more numbers, and you’d really prefer to avoid prime factorizing. Is there a way? Sure there is … here’s how.


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Example:  Find the GCF for  18, 42 and 96

Step 1)  Write the numbers down from left to right, like this:

………. 18     42     96

[FYI, the periods: …. are there just to indent the numbers. They have no mathematical meaning.]

Step 2)  Find any number that goes into all three numbers. You don’t need to choose the largest such number. Suppose we use the number 2. Write that number to the left of the three numbers. Then divide all three numbers by 2 and write the results below the numbers like this:

2    |  18     42     96
……..  9     21     48

Step 3)  Find another number that goes into all three remaining numbers. It could be the same number. If it is, use that. If not, use any other number that goes into the remaining numbers. In this example, 3 goes into all of them. So write down the 3 to the left and once again show the results of dividing, like this:

2    |  18     42     96
3    |    9     21     48
……… 3      7      16

Step 4)  You’ll eventually reach a stage at which there’s no other number that goes into all of the remaining numbers. Once at that stage, just multiply the numbers in the far-left column, the numbers you pulled out. In this case, those are the numbers:  2 and 3. Just multiply those numbers together, and that’s the GCF. So in this example, the GCF is 2 x 3 = 6, and that’s all there is to it.

Now try this yourself by doing these problems. Answers are below.

a)   18, 45, 108
b)   48, 80, 112
c)   32, 72, 112
d)   24, 60, 84, 132
e)   28,  42, 70, 126, 154

a)   GCF =  9
b)   GCF =  16
c)   GCF =  8
d)   GCF =  12
e)   GCF =  14

How to Find the GCF for Three or More Numbers

To find the GCF for three or more numbers,  follow these steps:

1)  Determine which of the given numbers is smallest, then find the smallest difference between any pair of numbers.

2)  See what is smaller:  the smallest number, or the smallest difference. Whichever one  is smallest, that number is the GPGCF (Greatest Possible GCF). That means that this is the biggest number that the GCF could possibly be. Or, more formally we would say:  The GCF, if it exists, must be less than or equal to the GPGCF.

3)  Check if the GPGCF itself goes into all of the given numbers. If so, then it is the GCF. If not, list the factors of the GPGCF from  largest to the smallest and test them until you find the largest one that does divide evenly into the given numbers. The first factor (i.e., the largest factor) that divides evenly into the given numbers is, by definition, the GCF.


Problem:  Find the GCF for 18, 30,  54.

1)  Note that the smallest number is 18, and  the smallest difference between the pairs is 12 [54 – 30 = 24;  54 – 18 = 36;  30 – 18 = 12] .

2)  Of those four quantities (the smallest number and the three differences), 12 is the least. This means that the
GPGCF = 12.

3) Check if 12 divides evenly into the three given numbers: 18, 30 and 54. In fact, 12 doesn’t divide evenly into ANY of these  numbers. Next we check the factors of 12, in order from largest to smallest. Those factors are: 6, 4, 3 and 2. The first of those that divides evenly into all three numbers is 6. [18 ÷ 6 = 3;  30 ÷ 6 = 5;  54 ÷ 6 = 9]. So the GCF = 6. And we are done.

Find the GCF for 24, 148, 200.

1)  Note that the smallest number is 24, and that the smallest difference between the pairs is 52 [200 – 148 = 52;  200 – 24 = 176;  148 – 24 = 124] .

2)  Of those four quantities (the smallest number and the three differences), 24 is the least. This means that for this problem, the GPGCF = 24.

3) Check if 24 divides evenly into the three given numbers: 24, 148 and 200. While 24 does divide evenly into 24, it does not divide evenly into 148 or 200. So next we check the factors of 24, in order from largest to smallest. Those factors are: 12, 8, 6, 4, 3 and 2. The first of those that divides evenly into the three given numbers is 4. [24 ÷ 4 = 6;  148 ÷ 4 = 37;  200 ÷ 4 = 50]. So the GCF = 4. And, once again, we are done.

The process may seem a bit long, but once you get used to it and start doing it in your mind, not on paper, you should find that it actually is quite fast. And you’ll find yourself figuring out the GCF for three or more numbers all in your mind — with no need for pencil and paper — while everyone around you will be making prime factor trees or using calculators. And surely that is a good feeling.

Josh Rappaport is the author of five books on math, including the Parents Choice-award winning Algebra Survival Guide. If you like how Josh explains these problems, you’ll certainly  like the Algebra Survival Guide and companion Workbook, both of which are available on  Just click the links in the sidebar for more information! 

How to Combine Positive & Negative Numbers — Quickly and Easily

If you or someone you know struggles when combining numbers with opposite signs — one positive, the other negative — this post is for you!

To be clear, I’m referring to problems like these:

 – 2 + 7 [first number negative, second number positive], or

+ 13 – 20 [first number positive, second number negative]

To work out the answers, turn each problem into a math-story. In this case, turn it into the story of a tug-of-war battle. Here’s how.

In the first problem, – 2 + 7, view the – 2 as meaning there are 2 people on the “negative” team; similarly, view the + 7 as meaning there are 7 people on the “positive” team.

There are just three things to keep in mind for this math-story:

1)  Every “person” participating in the tug-of-war is equally strong.

2)  The team with more people always wins; the team with fewer people always loses.

3)  In the story we figure out by how many people the winning team “outnumbers” the other team. That’s simple; it just means how many more people are on that team than are on the other team. Example: if the negative team has 2 people and the positive team has 7 people, we say the positive team “outnumbers” the negative team by 5 people, since 7 is 5 more than 2.

Now to simplify such a problem, just answer three simple questions: 

1)  How many people are on each team?
In our first problem, – 2 + 7, there are 2 people on the negative team and 7 people on the positive team.

2)  Which team WINS?
Since there are more people on the positive team, the positive team wins.

3) By how many people does the winning team OUTNUMBER the losing team?
Since the positives have 7 while the negatives have only 2, the positives outnumber the negatives by 5.

Now ignore the answer to the intro question, Question 1, but put together your answers to Questions 2 and 3.




All in all, this tells us that:  – 2 + 7 = + 5

For those of you who’ve torn your hair out over such problems, I have good news …


But to believe this, it will help to work out one more problem:  + 13 – 20.

Here, again, are the common-sense questions, along with their answers.

1)  How many people are on each team?
In this problem, + 13 – 20, there are 13 people on the positive team and 20 people on the negative team.

2)  Which team WINS?
Since there are more people on the negative team in this problem, the negative team wins.

3) By how many people does the winning team OUTNUMBER the losing team?
Since the negatives have 20 while the positives have only 13, the negatives outnumber the positives by 7.

Just as you did in the first problem, put together your answers to Questions 2 and 3.




All in all, this tells us that:  + 13 – 20  = – 7

Now try these for practice:

a)  – 3 + 9

b) + 1 – 4

c)  –  9 + 23

d)  – 37 + 19

e) + 49 – 82

Answer to Practice Problems:

a)  – 3 + 9 = + 6

b) + 1 – 4 = – 3

c)  –  9 + 23 = + 14

d)  – 37 + 19 = – 18

e) + 49 – 82 = – 33

Josh Rappaport is the author of five books on math, including the Parents Choice-award winning Algebra Survival Guide. If you like the way Josh explains these problems, you will very likely like the Algebra Survival Guide and companion Workbook, both of which are available on  Just click the links in the sidebar for more information!