Math is Not a Four-Letter Word
A teacher's advice for helping kids with math
Are you one of the many parents who are finding it challenging to help your child with math? You are not alone. It can be frustrating, and even embarrassing, when you don’t understand your third grader’s homework! Schools around the nation have switched to Common Core math. Although Oklahoma has its own standards, Common Core permeates much of the curriculum that is available to educators, so our standards are almost identical to the Common Core standards. Textbooks present the material in new ways that are unfamiliar to many parents, so they may find the method confusing. As a 14-year veteran teacher, I sometimes find it confusing as well. The claim is that it promotes a deeper understanding of math, but this has not been my experience. The good news is that the skills your child needs haven’t changed.
How Can You Help?
How can you help your child with math? Keep in mind that some things are taught differently than you might expect, or they may be presented in an earlier grade, but there’s no material difference. For example, some of our new math textbooks have students adding and subtracting by beginning at the left, but you can still help your child with addition using the traditional method. Learning multiple approaches to solve problems is an advantage for the student. The traditional method also leads to the correct solution.
However, the textbook pages may expect students to use the new method, making it more difficult to help your child. This could lead to some less-than-desirable homework grades. If you are struggling to help your child, you may want to contact your child’s teacher to explain the method to you. Don’t be embarrassed, as this happens more often than you would think. You can also look for YouTube videos to explain. Khan Academy and Zearn.org are both good resources to help with Common Core math. It might also be helpful to search for a copy of your child’s textbook. It would be even better if it were a teacher’s edition.
One of the most important things parents can do to help their children in math is to practice facts with them. Fluent fact mastery will benefit your child in almost every topic learned in math. Addition and subtraction facts should be mastered before third grade. Once students reach third grade, the focus will shift to multiplication and division.
Understanding Basic Skills
One thing that frequently surprises parents is the complexity involved in each individual math topic to be learned. For example, parents may be surprised to learn that their child is struggling with third-grade addition and subtraction. They often don’t realize the number of skills that must be mastered in order to be successful with addition and subtraction in the upper elementary grades. Many of the problems students will be expected to solve are word problems. Problem-solving skills are essential.
Elementary students frequently struggle with which operation is needed in order to solve a word problem. I teach my students to use unit bars, a strategy from Singapore Math. You may wish to explore this strategy in order to help your child solve word problems. Students also need to be able to skillfully round numbers, and they need to recognize which problems require this strategy. Students will also be expected to filter out information which is not needed in order to solve problems. When solving complex math problems, your child should not be struggling with fact mastery at the same time.
Many parents don’t stop to think how fact mastery also helps students solve problems with fractions. Students as young as third grade are expected to simplify fractions. Consider how easily the fluent multiplier can simplify 7/49. This becomes problematic for children without fluent fact mastery. Whether your child is using one of the new math programs, or a more traditional method, fact mastery is essential. Helping your child master these facts is one of the most beneficial ways you can help.
Use Real-Life Applications
School-age children will be learning to solve problems with time and money, regardless of the curriculum being used. These problems can easily be applied to daily experiences at home. It is important that you understand the depth of knowledge needed. In the upper grades, reading a clock is not enough. Have children figure the elapsed time of situations. For example, if your family left the house at 11:14 to have lunch and see a movie, and returned home at 3:23, how long was the family gone? When helping children become skilled with money, help them count the change in your pocket. When shopping, or at dinner, have children figure out how much change you’ll receive. Have them predict which coins will be received as change.
It’s true that many things in the presentation of math have changed in recent years. However, the basics aren’t much different. New math can leave parents feeling helpless to assist their children. In actuality, there are still many ways you can help your child be successful in math. The above tips should allow you to assist your child, no matter what textbook is being used.