What are the best ways to teach mathematics to elementary age children?
February 28, 2014 9:11 AM   Subscribe

What do you do to teach your children math (or maths)?

My kids are in kindergarten now and they do a bit of mathematics every week, but not every day, and really they aren’t learning anything new. In the first grade in our district, there are no math text books or workbooks, which seems weird. I’m comfortable with what the common core demands, but I’m not convinced that the teachers will be. I suspect that I will have to supplement my children’s mathematics education just to keep up with Common Core standards.

What are the best practices? What are the best curriculum? What are the best picture books? How about homeschoolers and unschoolers? How do you make sure that you aren’t missing essential math elements?
posted by mearls to Education (9 answers total) 11 users marked this as a favorite
Best answer: Wow, this is an ENORMOUS question!

There are a lot of things that are important and tie together for elementary math education. Important things include number sense, spatial awareness, and beginning arithmetic, especially with money.

Things that will really help include manipulatives; I'm a huge fan of base-10 blocks because they help children visualize the way groups of ones can become a single ten. For that age, Cuisinaire rods can also be very helpful. Kids also love playing with these and they'll be really, REALLY helpful when you start thinking about addition and subtraction with borrowing as they get older.

Things on which to focus:

Anything with money! Sorting, counting, adding, making change, making piles, counting by dimes/tens, nickels/fives.

Numbers that add up to ten -- this will be very helpful for mental math and fluency later. 7+3, 2+8, all that stuff.

Play some games with a 100s chart; what happens if you go down a row and over three? Where are you? What did you just do? You can make a game of this too -- use a 100s chart as a game board, roll one die for the tens place and another for the ones place, and move that many rows or columns. It really gets kids to think about place value in an interesting way and understand how numbers in our base ten system relate to each other.

As they get older, play games that involve randomly generated adding and subtracting and, eventually, multiplying. Play the card game war where each player puts down two cards and your kids have to add them up and the higher number wins. Roll dice and add the numbers together. For multiplication when you get there, flip a bunch of coins, count the heads and tails, and multiply them together for points.

Recognize shapes in everyday life. Go on walks and do scavenger hunts -- can you find three triangles? Four rectangles?

Explain to them when you are using math and point out numbers. Speedometer on your card, prices, shoe sizes, whatever. What are the biggest shoes you can find?

Word problems and critical thinking are huge in the common core, as is fluency. They need to understand WHY things work and become very comfortable with their basic facts. I've noticed a number of schools fall down on fluency; I've seen fourth graders, even in good schools, who multiply seven times eight by adding seven eight times, each time counting on their fingers. This is not a good way to do math! Make sure your kids are very comfortable with their basic math facts, and then ask them to explain their thinking or to express it in another way. What's 4+3? How do you know? Draw me a picture and show me. If you have nine apples and eat 2, how many are left? Show me how you know. These skills like figuring out how to think through a problem so you know whether to add or subtract can be really, really hard. Help them visualize the questions so they actually know what's going on and can solve the problem intelligently.

Also, make sure you talk to your kids' teachers! They will be glad that you want to help and will have more personalized suggestions that fit in with what the class is doing.

Short answer:
Math in real life
Deeper questions

Good luck!
posted by Mrs. Pterodactyl at 9:42 AM on February 28, 2014 [5 favorites]

It nowhere near approaches the scope of the question, but my dad was always trying to get my brother and me to think about things more mathematically. It worked for me. Mostly he just tried to inject conversational mental math into everything we did.

One of my dad's favorite little "games" was: "if a hog and a half costs a dollar and a half, how much do three hogs cost?" He shot that at me from at least kindergarten age, maybe even before.
posted by phunniemee at 9:48 AM on February 28, 2014

There is no best way to teach math. You just need to try different things and figure out what works for your kids. We tried several things with our kids (homeschooled K-12) before realizing what worked best for them was old school Saxon math. Lots of worksheets, and lots of repetition. Some kids would be miserable with that system. Mine thrived.
posted by COD at 9:57 AM on February 28, 2014

I think that I'd use an abacus to teach math.

You may also want to teach your kids to count in Chinese. Because the names of numbers are shorter, it's easier to grasp and calculate.
posted by Ruthless Bunny at 10:48 AM on February 28, 2014 [1 favorite]

Check out MathStart books by Stuart J. Murphy. There are dozens of them, they're story books that teach kids math concepts. I got turned onto these by a professor of math education, and the kids I've read them to enjoy them. If your local library doesn't have any you can buy some used pretty cheap.

Math is something you should be integrating into everyday life with your kids in as organic a manner as possible. Let them help you measure food for recipes, figure out shopping list quantities, count pairs of socks, time minutes on computer or in front of tv, etc. If they see/hear you using math all the time they will absorb some of it as well as a positive attitude.

If you have the chance to choose their teachers watch out for the ones who tell you how much they love teaching reading and never mention math. A lot of primary teachers are not good at math themselves and dislike it. Kids pick up on this, especially if they're girls and their teachers are women.
posted by mareli at 12:09 PM on February 28, 2014 [1 favorite]

Here's a comment I left in a similar thread about math books for kids. Great -- but complicated -- question! :)
posted by These Birds of a Feather at 12:43 PM on February 28, 2014

Singapore Math is highly regarded.

You might like:

Doris Fisher's books My Half Day, My Even Day, and One Odd Day.

Spaghetti and Meatballs for All

It doesn't teach math, but I really like the book about Paul Erdos called The Boy Who Loved Math.

You can incorporate math into your child's daily life by encouraging your child to count, separate, partition, etc.
posted by Dansaman at 2:20 PM on February 28, 2014

As best practice, police yourself for "math is innate"-isms, and as mareli wrote above, police teachers for this. The sad truth about the current system is that people who believe in math and need money can't afford to settle for primary school teacher's wages, so primary school teachers skew math-fearing.

Anecdata: I've done stupid community service things in college where I would go into a high school classroom to do chemistry enrichment (I was going to talk about caffeine and alcohol). The teacher thanks me for coming and then says -- in front of all the kids, "Chemistry is so hard: I could never do it. I just could _never get it_! My degree was in Literary Arts, so I'm so glad you're here!"

GREAT, TEACHER MCTEACHERSON, thanks. There went my "chemistry is accessible for anyone who tries and worthwhile because it is in your daily lives" schtick.

So same with math. Avoid this in your home ("Say "Hi" to Mr. X, Billy! Mr. X is an engineer, and that means that he's very _smart_").
posted by batter_my_heart at 5:52 PM on February 28, 2014 [1 favorite]

Okay, I used to teach elementary school, and then I've sort of semi-home-schooled my own children in math. There is one set of books that I've found to be top-notch.

Look up the Life of Fred series. This is a LOT of books about a boy named Fred Gauss (rhymes with 'house') who is a 5 year-old math professor at KITTENS University. The books are goofy and fun. They start with basic arithmetic, but you can work your way up to a 540-page, 2 year-long college calculus book, and metamathematics and beyond.

The thing I love about these books is that they're 75% stories: each book has a series of adventures that Fred goes on, whether it's speaking at the quadrennial math and pizza conference about ice cream, or getting fleeced by the antagonist C.C. Coalback, or learning about what it takes to start your own business from his Happy Meal doll, Kingie (who makes a living selling his paintings, and also happens to be Fred's only friend.) The point is, the author puts math in real situations, whether it's dealing with spending on a budget, or finding patterns using rhyme schemes in poems etched on University walls, it all is immediately useful. The kids learn math by solving real-world problems, rather than just memorizing how to do long division.

Not that they DON'T learn how to do long division: on the contrary, these books do use repetition to learn skills, it's just that they continually put those skills in real-world situations, so that kids think they helping Fred solve problems, even when they're learning math.

And plus, they're just a pleasure to read. They're fun, and you feel sorry for little Fred, who is completely a Charlie Brown character (abandoned by his parents at six months on the steps of the University, so he's been teaching math there since then, and he's continually too trusting of certain people, so he's always getting ripped off by the bad guys.) But even with all of that, the kids LOVE it. They love telling me what Fred SHOULD have done in the face of another of Coalback's schemes. The point is, they're learning, and having fun doing it.

Anyway, this is way too many words to say: look at those books. Read about the author here. Good luck. Enjoy!
posted by nushustu at 9:19 PM on February 28, 2014 [1 favorite]

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