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Teaching Mental Math: Ideas and Activities

By Sandy Fleming

Are you looking for a great way to help students internalize math concepts? Teaching mental math is just the thing! Find out why mental math is so important and discover how to motivate students to improve math skills using mental math ideas and activities.

The Importance of Mental Math

Mental math, the skill to manipulate, calculate and estimate numbers without calculator or paper and pencil, is not only a handy life skill, but also a sound indicator of understanding of math concepts. Teaching mental math is vital to student success. Students who can operate with numbers in their heads have internalized the math ideas taught in the classroom and can usually apply them. It is important to encourage mental math, since students are far more likely to use their math skills in the real world if the skills are automatic. If you can make mental math seem like fun instead of an onerous task, even reluctant students are far more likely to learn!

Building Automaticity

One foundation for mental math is fluency or automaticity. Students must be able to respond to each step of a problem almost reflexively in order to do mental math. As with most automatic skills, practice and over-learning are key to attaining this level of mastery. Paper and pencil practice has its necessary place in this process, but students will be far more motivated to learn these vital skills if they can use games. The computer is a great resource for engaging practice of this sort, with video game-like activities such as those found at and Older students can enjoy games like Algebra Crunchers, found at

Card and board games, such as versions of Math Bingo, Slap Jack and so forth, can also help students build the necessary skill levels to make the jump to mental math. Use the games to practice basic math facts, more complex calculations, applications of formulas and more. Competitive games, like Around the World or Math Fact Relay Races, offer incentive to come out on top and can motivate some students to succeed.

Making Math Magical

Once students have developed competence and fluency at math skills appropriate for their grade level, it's time to encourage mental math. One way to do this is to use math magic tricks. Magic is a highly motivating activity for most students, who will enjoy being a part of the tricks. Some students will take the learning a step farther and master the tricks well enough to perform them in other settings. Whichever level students end up using, math magic tricks will encourage mental math skills.

The most common math tricks involve so-called mind reading or prediction of the answers to a seemingly complex math problem. They rely on principles such as distributive property or facts about numbers, such as when digits add up to 9, the number is divisible by 9.

For example, have a player choose any number at all in secret. Challenge him or her to mentally add the next number in sequence (201 + 202). Add 9 to the result and then divide the total by 2, all mentally. Subtract the original number. Read the player's mind by announcing the answer (it will always be 5).

Building Mental Math into the Curriculum

Mental math teaching can become a part of your curriculum if you intentionally include the extra practice necessary for fluency and opportunities to exercise the skills. Utilize supplemental lessons on mental math. Set aside a few moments during the week for math practice activities and games. Find some great math magic tricks at With forethought and practice, many of your math students can become math whizzes!