Mathematics help for 6yr old son
April 5, 2011 5:55 PM   Subscribe

Help me help my 6yr old with maths.

My son is in Year 1 (First grade) and is struggling with addition & subtraction, which are the basics.
I'm not sure how to help him as I'm embarrassingly bad at explaining things.
His father and I help him daily with his homework but I think all we're doing is confusing him with our own methods and he's already generally not very sure of himself unfortunately.
I'm just looking for a simple and fun way to teach him. What effective method will stick? Counters, base ten or just using his fingers to count? Any suggestions will be appreciated.
posted by sammyabdu to Education (17 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
We always did this with actual objects. It's useful for visual learners. We used dried beans in my house; they are cheap and plentiful.
posted by DarlingBri at 6:00 PM on April 5, 2011


Start out with using 10 of something, apples. blocks. pennies. cans of soda. whatever you have a bunch of that you can use to visualize numbers.

Then walk him through the addition and subtraction using the apples.

"5 minus 2: well we have 5 apples and if we take away 2 of the apples.. how many apples does that leave us?"
posted by royalsong at 6:02 PM on April 5, 2011

Echoing DarlingBri and royalsong, I found blocks & sticks like these to be helpful teaching tools. They may also be helpful when he has to learn multiplication / fractions later on.
posted by miss_kitty_fantastico at 6:06 PM on April 5, 2011

I occasionally tutor math (at the high school/college level).

Use beans. If you're six, you absolutely need to see the concrete operation you're performing before you can grasp the abstract operation.

(A few weeks ago, I actually used beans to show a young woman why division doesn't actually exist. And why multiplying by the reciprocal is "division" of fractions. It worked wonders.)
posted by Netzapper at 6:17 PM on April 5, 2011

When I was in first grade, I had a really awesome teacher. She did this thing where she made "number ladders" that everyone put on their desk. A number far as I can remember it was really just a list of numbers from 0 to whatever, each number was in a space on this piece of paper, and then the whole thing was taped to the top of your desk with that enormous wide scotch tape they only have in elementary school. Like so:


Then, she explained to everyone the stuff other people are talking about, like showing how when you have two things and three things, now you have five things, but she connected it to the actual digits by use of the number ladder. If you get a arithmetic expression of the form x + y you put your finger on x then you climb up y steps. For subtraction, you climb down y steps.

It seemed like a lot of the kids got the concept of physical things and could count (obviously, this method is not that useful if the kid can't already identify the written numerals and also count pretty reliably, but its not TOTALLY useless. I vaguely remember kids having penciled-in helpers, like, three dots next to the '3', four dots next to the '4' and so on) but the actual relating of that to the abstract numerals and so on was the tricksy bit. This seemed to help a real lot with that.

Part of the bonus of using that tape was you could write marker on it and wipe it off. The kids weren't normally given a marker but the teacher or the aide would come around and help individual kids and they would write the process down on the tape. Like, 2+3 they circle the two, then write 1, 2, 3 next to the numbers as they go up, and also make I, II, III marks.

Then, she made everyone do a bunch of boring arithmetic problems off a ditto every day, but at your own pace. So kids could gradually wean themselves off the number ladder as they got facility with the concept and pick up speed, but she and the aide would help kids one-on-one that were stuck or moving slowly (the aide wasn't there every day/all the time).

Maybe they did this in every school and its been discredited or whatever, but I loved this teacher (which was super rare for me when I was a kid) so much that I always figure everything she did was the best possible way. As in, I have used her managerial techniques at work. With grown adults.
posted by jeb at 6:19 PM on April 5, 2011 [2 favorites]

Maybe use objects that he's interested in? His cars? Favourite cards? Food items? Children tend to know EXACTLY how many sweets they want, how many you've given them and how many they have left after they've eaten two. Give him an incentive to pay attention to what he's counting and he might count them more carefully.
posted by joannemullen at 6:22 PM on April 5, 2011

Everyone's advice here to use physical objects is spot on. M&Ms are good because you can eat them afterward.

Something to keep in mind for a few years down the road...the Teddy Bear Technique. My mom uses it to teach her fourth graders, and I've found it invaluable while tutoring/helping with homework while babysitting.

The Teddy Bear Technique is used when solving equations.

Let's say you have to solve x - 3 = 2.

Just remember that there is a really demanding teddy bear living on each side of the equal sign. Whatever you do to the left side, you have to do to the right side, too, or else the teddy bears will get jealous. So if you add three to the left side, you have to add three to the right side at the same time so the right-sided teddy bear doesn't start to cry. (It becomes clear just how helpful this is once it's complicated by order of operations, etc.)

Also make sure to teach him the magic hand calculator for doing the 9 times tables.
posted by phunniemee at 7:05 PM on April 5, 2011 [1 favorite]

Yep. I used buttons and beans for this growing up. My grandmother kept a jar of jelly beans for this at her house, too. I like the idea of m&ms, but I don't know if I would have had the patience to push pieces of chocolate around for a homework assignment before eating them.

I had a teacher that used number ladders, too. I never understood that technique, but didn't really need it either. I figured it out fine on my own.

Seriously don't be afraid to let him add or subtract with his fingers. It's a fine way to learn 1st grade math.

Also try just counting things and asking math questions randomly throughout the day with him.
posted by dchrssyr at 7:20 PM on April 5, 2011

I teach basic skills math to kids as young as fourth grade. (I've never taught first grade.) That said, everyone's advice here about using concrete objects is good. Here's some more advice though:

ASK QUESTIONS ABOUT DIFFERENT ASPECTS OF THE PROBLEM. In other words, don' just ask "what's two plus three?", ask "what are two numbers we could add together to get five?" and see if your son can find several ways of doing it. Also, act it out... Put three apples on the table, and then put another five on the table, and ask him what addition problem you just acted out, and what the answer was.

Also, when you do the addition and subtraction, I'd suggest arranging the objects in different ways--don't always use a line for example, and show that you can take a DIFFERENT three things away from a group of seven, for example, and always get four.

Talk to him about changing the ORDER of the addends when you're adding, and ask him if he thinks it changes the answer. If he isn't sure, see if he can come up with one where it changes the answer.

When it comes to subtraction, ask him to show three minus five using the apples, and see if he can explain why this is impossible.

Go over how to model adding and subtracting zero.

TRAIN HIM TO CATCH MISTAKES. I would start by telling him you are going to do a problem, and that there's going to be a mistake somewhere in it, and see if he can find it. For example, if you're doing five plus three, start with five apples, and then add FOUR and see if he catches it. Or, add three to five, but say that the answer is SEVEN instead of eight. Or, start with five, and TAKE AWAY three, and see if he recognizes that you subtracted instead of added.

Move on from this to your son quizzing YOU, and intentionally make mistakes, but do some problems correctly so he has to constantly be on the lookout.


My guess is that you will learn something from him in the process.
posted by alphanerd at 7:43 PM on April 5, 2011 [2 favorites]

I work with first graders and one of the problems I see come up is kids not getting the concept of numbers.

Its hard to work at addition and subtraction if a kid is unaware of the different values a number has. I know it seems really basic, but for some it takes months to get into their head that 3 is not the same as 4. Perhaps it is something else besides the actual concept of subtraction or addition that he is not getting.

One thing that I have found interestingly helpful is getting other first graders to help those who don't understand. In this way, the kids explain it to each other typically on terms they both are able to comprehend and it build friendship and confidence. Does he have any friends that could help?

Seconding the using objects he is really into. My first graders LOVE hot wheels, even some of the girls. It helps kids to think of things they see every day and know well. Legos might be another good option.
posted by fuzzysoft at 8:00 PM on April 5, 2011

Nthing the use of physical objects. But here are a couple more things to try with the objects.

1) Take 10 pennies. Have them count 1 to 10. Take 1 penny from the initial pile to make a second pile. Have them count the number in each pile (9 and 1) then ask what is 9+1. Then move another penny from the pile of 9 to the pile of 1 - so you will have two piles 8 and 2, ask what is 8+2. Continue this until you get to 0 + 10. Some point in the process they will understand the answer is always 10 - just keep going and keep them counting and saying the numbers out loud.

2) Then separate the pennies into two piles with different numbers in each pile. Have them count the number in each pile (say 4 and 6) then ask what is 4 + 6. Do this several times always keeping 10 pennies and changing the number of pennies in the two piles each time.

3) After you use 10 pennies take a couple of pennies away (say 2) and run the exercise again with partitioning the smaller set. When you have done this several times - and if the child seems to understand bring back the third pile and ask what the sum of all three piles is (so if you took away 2 initial and separated the 8 remaining into two piles of 3 and 5, you would ask what is 2 + 3 + 5)

If you think about it, there are a lot of things this shows which we implicitly know that a child doesn't. Doing it with pennies connects the concepts to things they understand and can see.

Also as with anything with young kids, show it to them - even if they don't seem to get it the first time come back in a couple of days and see how they do.
posted by NoDef at 8:29 PM on April 5, 2011 [1 favorite]

an abacus is fun and very visual, especially about the ones, tens, hundreds aspect. and darts and a dartboard. what kid doesn't like throwing pointy things into a target? let them help keep score
posted by Redhush at 8:33 PM on April 5, 2011

Try to talk about math in regular life. If you're at the grocery store and you tell him you need three apples, put two in the cart, and note that you need one more, then tell him that's because two plus one equals three. If you're waiting at a traffic light and there are three cars in front of you, point that out and note that after one car goes through, there will only be two cars in front of you. Then tell him that's what three minus one equals. You don't always need to be quizzing him and asking him for the answers, or only doing math during homework time, especially because outside of homework you can more easily just provide the answers so you don't set it up as an opportunity for him to get it "wrong". Then as he gets more comfortable you can turn things into questions (e.g. it's five blocks to the store, and we've already walked three blocks, how many more blocks do we have to go?)
posted by gubenuj at 9:04 PM on April 5, 2011

Response by poster: I was a little reluctant to ask this question. It's First grade maths, how hard could it be? But as I indicated it's not the maths that I was struggling with it was how to explain it so not to confuse him. It seems so obvious now! Beans! Or any other object around the house =) and applying maths to everyday life.

My son is very much like me, in that we're both always second guessing ourselves and I do this so much more now as a parent (but we'll leave that for another askmefi question).

Thank you so much for taking the time to reply..
posted by sammyabdu at 9:11 PM on April 5, 2011

We used to have cards around our classroom with a number and then that number of objects on the same card. Eg. the number six with six forks on it. I just thought of another way that might work. If you can get your hands on a cheap ( second hand) cuckoo clock. It cuckoos each hour. The number of cuckoos coincides with the hour on the hour. Maybe teach him to tell time too. You can always stop it at night and then do it again the next day or whenever. The only thing is that they have Roman Numerals. But you could put a small sticker with the proper numbers covering them. Just a thought.
posted by Taurid at 10:48 PM on April 5, 2011

I was a middle school math teacher, and I can tell you that there is a lot of good advice in this thread. But I want to clarify a few things that were already said:

First make sure your child has mastered the concept of knowing that a group of objects matches the written digit. Use cards like Taurid mentioned or the number ladder like Jeb mentioned.

Once that is mastered, then use any/all the physical techniques above to practice addition.

In addition, the concept of "how many to make 10" that NoDef described is very helpful and it shows up later when they start getting into upper math. You can tell which kids did not learn this in the early grade.

And one more thing I didn't see anyone mention: drill it. Use flashcards or quick verbal quizzes throughout the day and see if you can help your child memorize the math facts. I would never advocate strict memorization without the physical understanding, but I'll also say that if the only way your child can add is to physically draw or count it out, then higher math will be much harder.

Another technique that my daughters' first grade teachers did was make flashcards in the shape of a triangle. Each point had a number on it and the space between the numbers had either + or - sign. For example 3,4 and 7 were used to illustrate 3+4=7 and also 7-3=4 and 7-4=3. To use them, cover one of the numbers with your thumb and ask the child to name the hidden number. This helps build the concept of relationships going both ways.
posted by CathyG at 8:23 AM on April 6, 2011 [1 favorite]

For what it's worth, I am a mathematician, and I use my fingers to do addition and subtraction of small numbers. (e.g., 5+8 is...ok, start with 5, then 6,7,8,9,10,11, 12,13 (keeping track of the numbers i'm saying on my fingers until I get to 8).) My 5 year old hasn't quite gotten to this level of finger-counting: she wants to count out the 5 too.

But despite what my mother claimed when I was a kid, inability to do mental arithmetic does not mean inability to succeed in math, at least eventually.
posted by leahwrenn at 9:18 AM on April 6, 2011

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