Mastering elementary math (or maths) is vital for your child’s academic success.
The good news is that almost all children do have the ability to grasp the concepts of elementary math. Within the right environment and with suitable practice almost every child can become proficient with numbers, learn simple addition and subtraction, learn their multiplication tables off by heart and have the capacity to work out more complex sums.
A child who masters the basics learns there is no reason to fear mathematics. They receive positive feedback in school and in other social settings and their self esteem grows. They feel smart. As school continues and more and more difficult concepts are introduced, they will have a big headstart – in mathematics obviously, but in other subjects as well.
On the other hand, if a child’s natural ability is not nurtured, they will soon be left behind. As other kids move on to more advanced topics this child will struggle to keep up – almost inevitably leading to frustration, bad behaviour and a reduction in self esteem.
It does not have to be this way. Every parent has the ability to ensure their child takes the route towards mathematical and therefore academic success.
The two keys are:
1. Make it fun. A culture of ‘maths is boring’ abounds in our society – you need to be the one to make sure your child never succumbs to this
2. Do a little bit every day – make it a natural part of everyday life
By the age of four the top kids will already be able to count and will be able to do simple addition and subtraction. (If your child can’t do this that’s ok, there is still plenty of time – see our section on preschool math for details on how to catchup).
Addition and subtraction
You can introduce addition and subtraction to your child using a everyday objects such as coins or fruit. For example, put a pile of three coins and a pile of five coins in front of your child and ask them how many there are in total. Your child might work this out by counting one through eight, or they might start by realising that given there are three in the first pile they could start counting the second pile from three and they would arrive at eight this way.
Over time, using differing amounts of coins two things will be achieved:
1. The concepts of how to add or subtract numbers by counting will become understood
2. Your child will have built up a store of instant knowledge – eg they would know that four plus three was seven without even having to think about it.
In short they would know simple sums off by heart and have the tools to work out more difficult ones.
Never underestimate the value of knowing automatically the answers to as many sums as possible. If a child hasn’t been exposed to enough arithmetic to have learned simple sums by heart, each time they are faced with one they have to work it out. This makes them slower than other kids and means they will be more likely to be bored as well.
There are plenty of tools, worksheets and games online to help you teach your child these basic building blocks of elementary math. Also, don’t forget to take advantage of the opportunities thrown up by everyday life, eg recipes (measuring), at the supermarket (money, addition, subtraction), telling the time etc.
The next landmark in elementary math is the concept of multiplication.
Just like the coin example above, it is quite a simple concept to teach. Imagine a father teaching his daughter. It might go like this:
Father: Ok, let’s imagine that I’m going to give you, mommy (or mummy if you’re not in North America!) and nanna two chocolates each. So there’s two for mommy (laying down two chocolates), two for nanna and two for you. How many chocolates is that?
Daughter: (Counts them one through six). Six.
Father: That’s right! We are giving each person two chocolates. So three lots of two chocolates is six.
The above scenario could then be widened to talking about giving two people three chocolates each, and how many chocolates each person would get if you had six to share amongst three people. Soon, the concepts that 3 times 2 = 6, 2 times 3 = 6, 6 divided by 3 = 2 and 6 divided by 2 = 3 will start to become familiar to the child.
Learning the times tables doesn’t have to be boring! It should actually be fun.
There are a squillion different online resources available.
If you’d like a low-tech but effective solution, flashcards are great for starting off. Flashcards have the multiplication on one side (eg 4 X 3) and the answer on the other (12).
A child can progress through the flashcards for each times table in a three step process:
1. They read through the cards in order and use the answer on the back if they are not sure.
2. They go through the cards in order, and are able to answer them correctly and quite quickly – only occasionally needing to seek help from the back of the card.
3. You show random cards to them and see how quickly and correctly they get the right answer. Once they get to a point where they never make a mistake and can answer with instant recall they have mastered them and are ready to move to the next table.
Step 3 is crucial – if done well it will be a chance for your child to show off their knowledge to you. If they amaze you with their speed and accuracy, they will love your delighted response. Therefore, when they start on a new times table they will be motivated to practise a lot with the cards to try to dazzle you once more.
However, if step 3 is an intimidating experience for the child, it will backfire. Mathematics has to be fun – the instant that your child feels it is a chore, or too hard for them, or scary, then you must pull back and make it fun again.
Making the learning competitive, if done in the right spirit, can lead to amazing results and can be a lot of fun. When you are motivated and inspired by trying to beat someone or beat a target you are so much more likely to put in extra work to improve.
One day it will dawn upon you that you have succeeded. Maybe your child will perform a sum in their head faster than you could believe possible, or you’ll be told by their teacher that they are amongst the best (or indeed the best) at elementary math in their class. Whatever the moment, it will be a great one – you will realise that your child has been given the perfect springboard for academic success and you’ll reflect on how fun and rewarding the journey has been.