Subtracting the fear of learning maths
The final part of our series on literacy and numeracy gives strategies to boost your child’s confidence with maths, in 10 minutes a day
This week, our experts in primary education are looking at maths. It turns out that helping your children with maths is not about being a wizard with numbers. Helping your child with maths starts with your own confidence; with discovering the maths that you use every day without even realising it. It’s about approaching maths in a positive way, instead of sending out the message that it’s a hard, abstract subject. It’s also about language. Start talking about the basic of maths as they apply to real life and you will give your child a solid bedrock and a good attitude for future learning.
There are two key components to supporting your child’s maths: taking the right approach to homework and bringing maths into everyday life.
Key issues to remember are parental attitude and language.
Even if you did not enjoy maths at school, you don’t need to share that with your child. It sends out a negative message about the subject. Instead, accentuate the positive: “I always try to work things out. Let’s try and do it together.” Or, “I’ve forgotten how to do this. Can you help me?”
Another attitude block is that thorny question: what does it mean to be good at maths? Being able to do quick calculations in your head is just one aspect of maths. Notice and remark on other mathematical areas where your child shows strength.
Are they good problem solvers? Have they got a good sense of direction? Are they good at matching shapes and objects or seeing patterns? Working out times, dates or money? Most of us are much better at maths than we think.
Language is the other great stumbling block. Words that we use in general conversation can have quite a different meaning in maths, and when trying to decode a maths problem, you need to know what each word means in the context of the problem. Consider the following sentences:
“He’s not your average guy, he’s odd”; “Put the tables in a row; they’re a bit random”; “What’s the difference between this jumper and that one?”
Words such as average, odd, tables, random and difference have specific meanings in maths. “Unpack” the words to help the child understand what they mean.
As part of this growing awareness of maths, help children to get their heads around the concept of “same value, different appearance”. This is a fundamental concept that builds to so much more. A practical example is the way that two five-cent coins have the same value as, but look different to, a 10-cent coin. They are different, but equal.
A question that often arises among parents is: how do I help my child with maths when the methods they use are different to the ones I learned at school? The answer is to listen and ask the child to explain how the teacher does it. Give your child the opportunity to teach you. Work on your attitude to maths and help them get familiar with the language. Those two steps alone will make an enormous difference.
The biggest maths issue faced by children, parents and teachers is confidence. Parents should let children share what they have learned in school. They will learn by explaining it to parents. Don’t let maths homework be a scene of conflict, over-teaching or correction.
Language can cause great difficulties. If they come to school without a grasp of basic ideas, such as “more than”, “less than” and “difference between”, they will struggle with questions such as “How many more apples did John have?” Try to use this language at home.
By sixth class, there are some basic maths strategies that children will need. You can help to strengthen these at home. Multiplication tables are very important. You can strengthen these by encouraging children to count up in twos (on the stairs), in threes (sweets or marbles) and in fives (five-cent coins).
Use maths in everyday situations. Baking is a great activity (measuring, calculating cooking times), as are shopping, budgeting with pocket money and playing board games such as Monopoly. When shopping, ask children to work out which product offers the best value, comparing weight and prices, “buy one get one free” deals and 20 per cent extra stickers, for example. Look for examples of maths in its broadest sense: parallel, perpendicular, vertical and horizontal lines in buildings; shapes in natures; patterns in art.
It’s not your role to teach your child, but to support them in developing maths awareness. Use maths homework time to talk about the maths rather than to teach or correct it. If you spot something wrong, lead the child to discover where he or she went wrong, and to self-correct. If the child has many answers wrong, help them to discover their mistake in one instance and then invite them to look back over the rest, but don’t just correct every mistake. If you do, you are not giving the teacher an opportunity to see how the child is getting on. If the child is making the same mistake again and again, or clearly does not understand something, make a note for the teacher in the homework notebook.
Support children of all abilities by helping them to learn in their own way, reflecting maths in the world, using concrete examples and building their language and confidence in everyday activities.
It can be difficult to know when a strategy or technique is worth persevering with, and when a change of approach is needed. Techniques or interventions that offer a quick fix are unlikely to work.
Give any strategy time to work. Sensible learning goals, good work habits (short, regular and frequent sessions), preserving confidence and self-esteem in your child and good connections with their school will offer the best chance of success.
It can sometimes be hard to see the wood from the trees when assessing whether the current plan is working. You could try to chart progress against sensible measures: for example, chart progress with spelling against a list of known “tricky” words. Done in a light-touch way this can give you a sense of progress and your child a sense of momentum and achievement.
If you are doing something that does not seem to be working, then there may be no point in flogging a dead horse. Before a major change of approach though, speak to someone else, get advice or, importantly, connect with your child’s school. It might be that the approach just needs tweaking rather than wholesale change.
Finally, if you are going for a new approach, try not to change too much at once. That way you will have a sense of which bit is working. Scattergun, try-anything-and-everything approaches, although totally understandable as a concerned parent, might risk overloading you and your child. More measured change might be a better way to go. Learning is a journey: keep optimistic, and travel hopefully.
Use the child’s maths homework as a platform, and listen more than you talk.Encourage different approaches – risk-taking is an important element of good maths.
Start by “unpacking” the question. What is the problem asking you to do? Where is the maths in this? Underline key words. Could you use anything, such as a numberline, a 100 square or coins, to help you? Are there any words you don’t understand? How does your teacher do this? Could you draw a picture about the problem?
If the child gets the answer wrong, try getting them to explain how they arrived at that answer – they will often see where they went wrong themselves. Making mistakes and correcting them will help their understanding. Let the child know that taking risks and getting it wrong can be a good thing. Encourage persistence; “I bet you’ll work it out in the end.”
Give the child plenty of opportunities to describe what they are doing and why. This aids understanding.
Value quality over quantity. If you have completed three sums and really understood what you did, that is better than doing 10 in a hurry without understanding. Don’t go beyond the recommended time for homework set for each class in the school’s homework policy.
The issues that tend to cause problems for primary children, especially in upper classes, include learning tables, dealing with time, understanding the concept of subtraction and division, decimal places, fractions and the meaning of zero.
Strategies to learn: Multiplication tables
In third and fourth class in particular, learning tables becomes very important. Children go on to use tables in many other areas of maths as they progress through primary and into post-primary school. Here’s a strategy for making the job easier. Rather than simply learning them off by heart, help your child to work them out from a small number of learned facts.
Anchor facts: one, two, five, 10 times. These are easier because they will have been covered in the earlier classes through “skip counting”, ie, counting in twos, fives and 10s.
Commutative law: this is the “buy one get one free” because if you know 3 x 4 then you know 4 x 3, so you don’t have to learn both facts. This strategy works well with bigger numbers so get your child to turn the calculation around, for example 8 x 2 can be done as 2 x 8 and still get the same answer.
Related facts: 2, 4, 6, 8, 10 and 3, 6, 9. Think about it, if you know 2 x 6 = 12, then you can work out that 4 x 6 = 24, or that 3 x 3 is 9 so 6 x 3 = 18 just by doubling the known fact.
Square numbers or doubles: 2 x 2, 3 x 3, 4 x 4, 5 x 5, etc. Learn these off by heart so if you know 6 x 6, you can work out 6 x 7or 6 x 5.
Division as inverse of multiplication.
6 x 7 = 42, 7 x 6 = 42 but we can also say 42 ÷ 6 = 7 and 42 ÷ 7 = 6. So given the numbers 6, 7 and 42, I can write four table facts.
This series was compiled by Louise Holden and Gráinne Faller