Tuesday, January 25, 2011

It’s Not All About Numbers: Why Children Do Poorly in Math

Parents often ask us why their children are doing poorly in math, particularly in grades 2-6. For young children, abstract quantities can be daunting, especially when taught in the context of skill drills. Many children do not find immediate meaning in numbers as symbols, although that is what we hope to convey to them.

When we work with children in third through fifth grades who are having difficulty with procedural operations, such as long division and multi-digit multiplication, we find very often that they have not had any kinetic activity associated with the learning of the multiplication tables which are the basis for their computations. They become distracted from the procedures of multiplication and division by their concern over the “blank space” in their knowledge of multiplication tables and they lose momentum. Parents often tell us that they download tables form the Internet, math software programs, or they use flash cards.

We often ask the parent to provide art and craft materials for the student to use in writing his or her own personal multiplication tables. When the tables are personalized and used frequently with pride and familiarity, students gain in experience, confidence and expertise.

We suggest that your child have on hand a set of personally crafted multiplication tables from 1x1 through 12x12 to use with pride and confidence. This can be a family arts and crafts project or a project for your child to do in “down” time. The tables should be used for homework in division and multiplication. Even taking them to the supermarket to compute the total cost of multiple items will help to make the applications of arithmetic real and valued to your child.

Making your child’s learning experiential is of utmost importance in creating interest in math and developing skills. Many of us are not aware of the essential uses of elementary mathematical and spatial concepts in our own lives. Heightening awareness of these events in our own lives is essential to pointing them out to our children and sharing our experience with them.

Just as we read to our children, so should we communicate our reliance on mathematical principles to our children. This may vary from family to family depending on individual pursuits and interests. For some families whose common interest is sports competition, a short discussion of the role of sports statistics could make that dreaded skills homework more interesting and relevant to your child’s life. Others may be interested in video games, which use computer programming that requires trigonometric applications. Cartoon animation programming uses principles of topology, the mathematics of mapping in space.

Road trips and map reading are also mathematical adventures for parents to share with children. Topographical maps use numbers in an obvious way, while road maps with scale measurements open the discussion to ratios and scale.

The history of measurement and attempts at standardization can be come real when discussing money or the differences among the metric, imperial and U.S. measurement systems.

Toddlers, even with a rudimentary understanding of concrete quantity, can enjoy games of “which is less and which is more.” Counting games and rhymes abound and have been traditionally used to accustom children to quantitative symbols even at very young ages.

Perhaps the most useful tool of all in developing your child’s math ability at an early age is precision in language. Most of our students who have experienced the “drill and kill” math experience in school are shocked when they start to solve word problems as a mathematical exercise. These applications of the skills so long deemed to be the foundation of math education are daunting to children who have been trained to believe that mathematical studies begin and end with computation.

If children learn mathematics as a foreign language, with symbols and grammar of its own, they are better able to handle the rigors of higher mathematics – with its whole new set of symbols and logic – and they are more productive students. Reading to your child, discussing concepts of “more and less,” “before and after,” twice as much” and hierarchical classifications such as supermarket shelf organization and street name organization can pay off in your child’s mathematical performance.

Organization is the key to success in solving math problems. Giving your child adequate writing materials and encouraging him or her to experiment with blocking his work with designs to make it easier to read when he checks his work. Organizing work and establishing a rhythm for work is essential to success at problem solving. It is well worth the expense of large paper, markers and even colored pencils to establish the habit of conceptual organization.

So it really is not all about numbers but it is about the ability to organize, translate concepts and think inductively and deductively. Many skills and experiences contribute to those goals and - with parental involvement – children can improve their quantitative skills while enjoying the simple pleasures of life.

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