When to Begin

As homeschooling parents, we know that we are essentially “teaching all the time.” Our preschoolers are exposed to math by counting their fingers and toes, singing songs, reading stories, and many times by listening to older siblings discuss their math lessons at home. We count steps, chairs, and even doughnuts! The sense of math is there.

When parents begin more “formal” math, they may even use cement blocks in the one-count-one object theory. Many parents begin this process formally at the time they consider the child may be “kindergarten” age. If we define formal math as a written curriculum in which a child needs to use a pencil to write an answer, then we want to consider the child’s eye/hand coordination. I think it is always a good idea to start the processes of number identification, and even the processes of addition, without the paper/pencil or computer approach.

How to Begin

Almost all young learners are considered “kinesthetic” learners. That, of course, means that they like to touch, see, and feel the objects as they are manipulating them. That is why we start counting with blocks. The kinesthetic method of learning is what we call the “entry learning method.”

However, we have found that the majority of our young learners are also very visual learners. When we learn how to couple the “hands-on” learning with “visual” learning, we can move along so much faster. This is my favorite method of teaching. It provides immediate success. Nobody is left behind. No paper. No pencils. No memorization. We call this the “whiteboard method” because it is all done together with the teacher and child “thinking through” math together on the whiteboard. Much later, we’ll be able to use worksheets and writing on paper as an effective teaching tool.

The Whiteboard Math Method

Math time will be the time that you “play with numbers” together. For example, when teaching the number names, I like to give the child a quick “memory strategy” just in case the name doesn’t come easily. I will put the number “5” on the whiteboard in blue. Then we make up a silly story. We say something like, “the five-year-old boy was chewing bubble gum and he made such a big bubble that it splatted all over him! Two blobs of pink bubble gum landed in his hair (draw each gum blob on the 5 as you tell the story), and one landed in his elbow (ewww), one on his belly button, and one on his foot. He really needed a bath!”

I teach all the number names that way. If the child does not need the visual/zany memory clues because he has a very strong auditory processing ability, then it is just a little fun, but not necessary. But, for the child who is a little “brittle” in auditory processing memory, or math, it takes all the pressure off. If they can’t remember the name, no problem, just quickly add the dots.

My next “whiteboard math” lessons include adding numbers (also using the “blobs” memory technique). I have found that a six-year-old can learn number names, and add numbers four across and four down in a week. The next step is to teach a lesson on “re-grouping” or carrying using stories and pictures. By the end of two weeks most of the new math learners can add four numbers down and four across with re-grouping. They feel awesome and decide that math is easy for them. I found that, a little later, I can teach the concepts such as place value. But to avoid the left/right confusion, I like to teach the computation first, and the concept second. Many of my students like to learn from the “whole” to the “piece”, instead of from the “piece” to the “whole” as many math lessons are laid out.

After the child has an “internal sense of directionality” (no writing reversals, can tie shoes, skip, etc.), then I will teach the math concepts that require a strong midline, like place value, time, money, and measurement. During this time, the math book will be used solely as the teacher’s teaching tool, not for the student to sit down and complete independently. Then we are able to jump around in the math book, and help the student first master her computation level.

At the beginning, I use the 80/20 method. Eighty percent of the math time is spent in instruction on the whiteboard with colors and pictures, and practice by the child on the whiteboard. The remaining twenty percent is spent in independent practice. Modeling is such a powerful teaching tool, which is why we spend so much time on the whiteboard giving the student enough “scaffolding” to retain the math processes he is learning.

Math Memorization

Memorization of math facts, or math processes, does not have to be a problem for a reluctant math learner. We can make it so easy by imbedding “memory hooks” right into the math problems. The most common way to do this is by creating a unique (not rhyming) story and picture for each math fact. This is so easy to do with the multiplication tables. It is also easy to do with addition facts. There are many places to go to get good ideas about how to make these at home, or even to purchase them.

What about the child who learns a process, like multiplying by multiple digits, but then forgets the process in six weeks when you have gone on to another concept? That is the most fun. I loved working with my middle schoolers, helping them put zany, memory hooks on all of their new math processes. We created funny stories for how to do large multiplication problems. We just made the top numbers their favorite foods, and the bottom number the siblings who had to share the food. It made the whole process fun and easy to remember every time they saw that type of problem, whether they had “reviewed” it recently or not. We made up stories and zany pictures for all the fraction processes, and even algebra operations.

All kids became successful, no matter how “math phobic” they were! As soon as we created a template on the whiteboard that “stuck,” we drew it on a large piece of paper and kept that template taped up on the wall for the week, until quiz day. All of my teachers told me that their quizzed students looked in the place where the template had been that week to recall the math process.

If your child is more of an auditory than a visual learner, another great tool providing easy memorization “tricks” is Elmer Brook’s “Math-It Game” (Preschool and Elementary). These inexpensive games have some of the most ingenious ways to remember that I have ever seen. Kids learn to manipulate numbers in their head, and to work with numbers more confidently, by following the “funny” voice of Elmer Brooks as he shows the easy relationship of numbers and how they can learn to “play nice.” Even you will learn how to work with numbers in your head!

Whether we call it dyscalculia or just a plain old math phobia, we can get rid of that problem just by using different teaching strategies. Teaching with embedded memory hooks is the key.

Copyright 2019, The Old Schoolhouse®. Used with permission. All rights reserved by the Author. Originally appeared in the Summer 2019 issue of The Old Schoolhouse® Magazine, the trade publication for homeschool moms.

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Dianne Craft has a master’s degree in special education. She has twenty-five years of experience teaching bright, hardworking children and teens who have to work too hard to learn.