I occasionally get requests from schools inviting me to address parents about how to support their children’s learning in mathematics. Unfortunately, for practical purposes, I usually have to decline such invitations but here are ten things I would say to parents who are interested in helping their child learn more maths.
1. Promote a positive attitude to maths
Often you hear “educated” people making remarks like “Oh, I was never any good at maths myself in school.” Such comments, along with the publicity given to poor Leaving Cert results in maths, give students the idea that maths is difficult or that it is acceptable to be a low achiever in maths. The comments also give the false impression that maths is something you’re either good at or you’re not. Parents are in a good position to let their children know that solving maths problems can be satisfying, that anyone can be good at maths, that knowledge of maths is helpful in life generally, and that it opens up doors to some exciting career options.
2. Look at tables differently
Every student leaving primary school needs to be fluent and automatic in their addition, subtraction, multiplication and division number facts. They need to know instantly that 7 x 8 =56, 63 ÷9 = 7 and so on. But that is not the same as saying that every child needs to be able to rhyme off the number facts in tables form, as in 7 x 0 = 0, 7 x 1 = 7, 7 x 2 = 14, etc. Learning tables in this way works well for some children, and that’s fine. But there are limitations to this approach. For some children learning off such facts is next to impossible. One problem is that learning off such tables treats all number facts as if they are equally difficult. But they’re not. Adding 0, 1, 2, and 10 to various numbers is learned more quickly by children than adding numbers like 7 and 8. Why not make and display at home a list of “Easy (or Known) Number Facts” and “Hard Number Facts”? The “hard” number facts could be learned at incidental times during the day until they are known. The facts on the lists will change over time as number facts that were once difficult are learned.
Learning off lists of number facts makes it difficult for children to make connections across the tables that would help them learn the number facts. For example, if children know 6 + 7 = 13, they should learn to apply the commutative property of addition to help them see that 7 + 6 = 13. If children understand the relationship of addition to subtraction, knowing that 6 + 7 = 13 also lets them know that 13 – 7 = 6 and 13 – 6 = 7.
3. Ask your child to teach you maths
If a teacher encourages children to use one approach to doing a maths calculation, such as subtraction, for example in school, and a parent encourages the child to use a different approach at home, the child may get confused between both approaches. As a parent, instead of showing or telling your child how to subtract the way you learned to do it, a better approach would be to say to the child “teach me the way you’re learning subtraction etc.” in school. If the child even tries to teach you something, she/he will learn from that. If you don’t understand part of the approach, tell the child that and ask for more clarification. If the two of you are stuck at the end of homework time, encourage your child to ask a question in school.
4. Encourage your child to be independent in maths
Very often children wait for an adult – parent or teacher – to tell them that a solution to a problem is correct or incorrect. It’s better for the child if they can be confident in their own solution. Therefore, if your child asks if a question is right or wrong, a response might be, “give a reason why you think it’s right” or “how can you be sure that it’s right?”
5. Use maths with your child in daily life
There are several opportunities for children to practise maths every day. In the supermarket, compare the prices of multi-packs of fruit to decide which pack offers the best value. Give children the opportunity to handle money and receive change. Give the child some pocket money and encourage him/her to budget how the money will be spent. When going on a journey, note the distance and the speed and estimate how long is left on a journey.
The numbers 10 and 100 are important in our number system. Name a number and ask your child what you would have to add to it to make 10 or 100. Similarly, ask what you would have to take from 10 or 100 to give you 7 or 76. At home, keep a record of rainfall, temperature, children’s height, weight, etc. over time and record the information on a graph.
6. Display maths work at home
Parents are often proud to display their children’s visual arts pictures at home. It would also be good to display graphs such as those mentioned above (change in height over time etc) on the walls of the home or on the fridge door.
Similarly, you could display problem solving work done by the child at home. You could give the child specific tasks and display the finished product. Tasks that the children could work on include: my age in months, days, hours etc; the area of a room in my home or the area of my home. Displaying this work could encourage children to take pride in their maths work.
7. Communicate with your child’s teacher
If you are unsure about an approach being used in school, or if you are concerned about your child’s learning in maths, discuss this with the teacher as soon as possible. Most teachers welcome this kind of feedback and if your child is finding something difficult, it is possible that other children are stuck too.
8. Be realistic about textbooks
Know that covering the textbook is not the same as learning maths
Parents like to know how well their child is doing at maths and one barometer that is sometimes used is progress through the textbook. It seems encouraging if your child is on page 72 and the child’s cousin is only on page 52. Unfortunately, this is a rather crude way of finding out how well your child is doing and tells you little about your child’s achievement in maths. A better indication of learning is performance on tests and discussions with your child’s teacher.
9.Challenge a high-achieving child
Provide opportunities for children who are interested to explore mathematics independently. Some children enjoy learning maths and constantly seek additional challenges. Technology has made it easier for adults to provide such challenges. For example, children can learn to do computer programming using LOGO. The idea is that a turtle in the centre of the screen moves around the screen leaving a trail behind it. The turtle can be instructed to make all kinds of shapes. A basic start would be to command the turtle to go
The same instruction can be shortened to
And it can be shortened further to Repeat 4 [FD 100 RT 90]
The programme can be downloaded from this webpage and once children get started, they can learn more about the programme from trial and error and from other websites. For older children, the Geogebra programme for post-primary learners can be downloaded from here and students can practise applying geometry and algebra ideas. A new version of Geogebra for primary school children can be downloaded here.
10. Play games that encourage mathematical thinking
Chess is good for logical thinking. For younger children Jenga is also good. If you know of any other games, or if you come across any good websites for supporting maths learners, please leave a comment at the end of this post.
Good luck with these suggestions.