17 December 2009 02:33 PM

Promoting Math for Kids of All Ages

by Dr. Rick

Math is in the news again.  The White House is promoting math education with superstars like Sesame Street’s Elmo, and in Maryland, the state where I live, the University System is developing new math requirements for students headed to state colleges and universities. Those new requirements include four years of math studies in high school instead of the current three.  Other states are no doubt doing the same.


Many students complete three years’ math study by the end of their junior year and don’t bother with math in their senior year.  That’s a one-year hiatus until college.  You can forget a lot in one year.


Four years of math study will better prepare students for university or work in our increasingly science-technology-engineering-math oriented economy.


Do we do enough to get kids interested in math at an early age?  Probably not.  Here are some thoughts and tips.

  1. Look for numbers all over.  For the youngest learners, look for numbers all around the house and the neighborhood.  Just as we look for letters and words as our youngsters are learning to read, why not “explore” for numbers, too?  There they are in magazines, on the addresses outside our homes, in road signs.  Combine words and numbers in “searches,” and see how fast children catch on.

  2. Use numbers.  Let your child punch in the numbers when you’re making a phone call, read the quantities in a recipe, dial the oven to the necessary temperature (with your supervision, of course).  Let her set the alarm clock, set all the clocks at spring-forward, fall-back time, and help you monitor number-exhibiting gauges like thermostats, speedometers, odometers, tire-pressure gauges, and the like.

  3. Count.  There are lots of things you can count with your youngsters.  Stairs, birthdays, family members, cars in a small parking lot, toys on the floor, toys on the shelf, “sleeps” until a happy occasion, pets in the neighborhood.  Sing counting songs.  “Ninety-nine bottles of beer on the wall” can be changed to “Ninety-nine bottles of juice.”  It’s a better message, but – fair warning – it’ll drive you just as nuts in the car.

  4. Look for shapes and patterns.  Helping kids recognize and notice shapes and patterns gets them ready for the rudiments of geometry.  Rectangles, squares, circles, ovals, triangles, and other shapes surround us in our homes and neighborhoods.  Patterns are organized, repetitive, and predictable – and they’re all around us.  “Old MacDonald had a farm, E, I, E, I, O.”  Odd and even numbers.  The seasons of the year.  Rituals at church, temple, or mosque.  Morning routines.  Exercise routines.  Recognizing simple patterns help children to predict what comes next.

  5. Know about STEM .  Science-Technology-Engineering-Math courses are more important than ever.  For your middle- and high-school students, encourage them to explore these courses.  Learn about them yourself so you can be a knowledgeable advocate at home.

  6. Be a role model .  Talk about the role of math in your life and job.  Let the kids see you doing math.  Point out your math when you’re filling the car with gas, following a recipe, paying bills, examining sports statistics, figuring out the route for a vacation, building a tree house, figuring out a pool shot.  If you “hated” math when you were in school, keep your mouth shut about it.

  7. Advocate for good math teachers.  Yes, all teachers are important, but math teachers are among the teachers hard to come by, more’s the pity.  So, let your principal know that you’re interested in math education and you’re willing to lend a hand when it comes to recruiting and retaining a new math teacher.  If you have a college aged child who’s good in math, encourage him or her to consider teaching .

  8. Bone up on the curriculum.  No, you don’t have to master the higher math courses, but you should know about the math curriculum in your child’s school.  What are the requirements?  What’s the progression?  Are the texts and materials up to date?  Is special tutoring available?  (The company I work for, Sylvan Learning, has an excellent math record for kids who want to catch up, keep up, or get ahead.  Check us out at www.SylvanLearning.com.  Participating Sylvan Learning franchisees also offer SchoolMathPrep.com, a new, FREE, online math resource for grade 7-12 teachers and students to use at school – for remediation, enrichment or test prep.  To learn how your family can use SchoolMathPrep.com’s sister site, SylvanMathPrep.com, during your family’s homework time, visit www.SylvanMathPrep.com.)

  9. Have fun.  Kids don’t need to know they’re learning math.  There are many, many games that enhance math skills.  Card games, Scrabble (good for math patterns and vocabulary), puzzles, Sudoku, brain teasers, fun workbooks (www.sylvanlearningbookstore.com), and Monopoly, to name a few.

  10. Engage girls.  Don’t let girls fall for the old math-is-for-boys canard.  It’s not true, and it affects many girls’ confidence in school and beyond.

Readers, share your math success stories with us.  Just click on “Comments” below.



2 November 2009 12:05 PM

America's Math Scores

by Dr. Rick

The National Assessment of Educational Progress, often called “the nation’s report card,” came out recently with America’s report card grade in math.  The good news is that our kids are doing a teeny bit better in math, but the bad news is that there are still far more kids who are underperforming in math than who are doing well.


Since the national test was first implemented in 1990, the percentage of fourth graders, for example, who scored “proficient” or “advanced” in math has risen from 13% to 39%.  Good but not good enough.


The percentage of kids at “basic” or “below basic” levels has dropped from 87% to 61%.

Again, good but not good enough.  Sixty-one percent of our fourth graders doing math at only the basic or below-basic levels is, frankly, scary.


The skills for the 21st century that our future workers, thinkers, leaders, and citizens will need center around our abilities to think clearly and creatively, to analyze and reason, and to solve problems independently and with others.  That’s math.  (It’s also communications and people-skills, but let’s concentrate on math here.)


Look at the growth industries of the near-future.  The Microsofts and Googles of the future will almost certainly have to do with the technologies related to alternative energy solutions.  Those who can think creatively, analyze information, and work with others to find solutions to the world’s most pressing problems will be the ones who are in the most demand, the ones who are the most successful.


Here are some ideas to help us improve on that nation’s math report card. I’ve written extensively about each of these suggestions.  Click on “Archive” to read more.

  1. Get serious about learning.  Especially math.  Show your kids that school is important to you and to the family.  Give your kids the great good fortune of coming from a family who values lifelong learning.  Read my previous blog posts about how to set goals, take homework seriously, communicate with teachers, and reward students.  If you suspect that your child is having difficulties, for heaven’s sake get help early.  The company I work for, Sylvan Learning, has thirty years’ experience and a great track record in helping kids catch up, keep up, and get ahead in math.  There are even free seminars for parents to catch up on “forgotten math.” You won’t be alone.

  2. Start early.  Show your kids how math is important in so many ways.  Show how you use math daily – you use it more than you think.  Play games and sports that require some level of math knowledge (scores, stats, record-keeping, score-keeping, measuring, etc.).  Establish good math habits and attitudes.  No fair complaining about “math was my least favorite subject in school.”  Zip it.  Don’t saddle you kids with your prejudices.

  3. Practice.  Practice makes perfect.  You’ve heard me say this countless times. Make sure your kids get plenty of opportunities and time to practice their math facts and skills.  Set up pretty strict routines for homework and study time.  Reward good effort and results.  Monitor homework.  If your child says he has no math homework tonight, contradict him and assign some yourself.  And, while working with your child during math homework time, use www.SylvanMathPrep.com an online math resource for students in grades 7-12 that provides students with on-the-spot math homework assistance.  Work with your children to recall “forgotten” math concepts so students are ready to tacklemath throughout the school year.

  4. Encourage study buddies.  One of my favorite suggestions, as regular readers know.  Your child should have study buddies to help him get ready for tests, to make sure homework assignments are done on time, to compete with, to celebrate with.

  5. Get involved.  Stay in contact with the folks at school – teachers, guidance counselors, administrators, other parents – to ensure your child is on track.  Expect excellent teachers and current, reasonable, trend-free curricula.

  6. Look to the future.  Show your child how her education now, especially math, will affect her future employability, earnings, and success in the work world.  Show how math is important in your job and how you use it every day.

  7. Set a good example.  Another favorite theme of mine.  Let your kids see you doing math – measuring, balancing your check book online, shopping, looking for the best bargains, planning trips and vacation outings, etc.  Speak of math’s importance.  Don’t speak of how you hated your eighth grade math teacher.

  8. Have high expectations.  Just as you have high expectations of the math teachers and curriculum at school, have high expectations of your child.  Let her know that her grades in math are important to you, that you’re going to be monitoring her homework and grades.

  9. Set goals.  With you child, set the goals you expect him to reach every month,  quarter, semester, year.  Decide together what appropriate rewards and consequences should be.

  10. Keep it up.  Maintain a rigorous homework and study schedule, with plenty of time for practice.  Turn off the TV and other screens.  No “multi-tasking.”  Make sure there are plenty of breaks, plenty of opportunities for fun, plenty of family time, too.

It’s not hard to argue that many of us Americans don’t value or respect learning.  Take a look at what we spend our money on, what we watch on TV, how we spend our time, how our attention spans have shortened.  It’s up to us adults to lead our kids to a future that allows them to be successful, fulfilled, and, yes, smart.



26 October 2009 03:08 PM

Helping with Math Homework

by Dr. Rick

Helping your child with homework is a delicate balancing act.  Guiding, encouraging, supporting, and organizing are different from being suckered into doing the homework yourself.  When you do the actual homework (you’d be amazed at how many parents confess to doing just that), no one learns anything.  Except maybe the child, who learns that you just may be useful after all.  Math homework offers its own unique challenges.


No, there are other much more valuable things you can do to help your kid learn his math and become a more-or-less independent learner in the process.  Try these.

  1. Practice, practice, practice.  You’ve read my blogs.  You know the value I put on practice, persistence, and effort  Talk to any kid and ask how excellent athletes, musicians, actors, and other performers got to be so good, and he’ll be able to tell you – practice, and plenty of it, is key.  (How many thousands of miles does Michael Phelps swim each year?  Listen to him talk about practice and focus.)  Same for practicing for math.  Think of it as Phelpsing.  The more practice the better.  It’s important for your child to work on math problems each night at home.

  2. Organize.  Another of my favorite themes.  Help your child organize his time , his study space, his study supplies, his routines.  Help him create a quiet, comfortable, well organized space that’s as free from distractions as possible.  Show him how to keep a planner and assignment book.  Math in particular – because of its daily practice – needs an assignment book.  Help him recognize what part of the day is best for studying – right after school?  Later at night?  Early in the morning?   It can be different for each kid.  If he tells you he doesn’t have any math homework, assign it yourself.  That’s allowed.

  3. Don’t put off homework.  Make sure your child does his math homework the night it’s assigned.  He should go over his class notes nightly, while the content is still fresh in his mind and he can identify questions he’ll want to ask tomorrow in class. If he needs the encouragement and structure, have him go over the notes with you.  On the nights before tests  and major assignments, make sure he schedules extra study time.  Extra study gives extra confidence.  Additionally, as students prepare for tests, leverage the 2,000 instructional videos and self-tests on www.sylvanmathprep.com.  Take advantage of the two-day free trial.  

  4. Get help if you need it.  Everyone needs a little help now and then.  If you suspect he needs it, get your child the help he needs now.  Putting it off only makes a little problem grow into a big one, especially in math, where skills build on one another.  Teachers stay before and after school to help kids, and the company I work for, Sylvan Learning, has excellent math tutoring for kids wanting to catch up, keep up, or get ahead.  It even has “Forgotten Math for Parents” seminars that can help families at homework time.  Check them out at www.sylvanlearning.com.

  5. Review.  Go over the skills he’s learned each week.  (Or daily, if you need to.)  I’ve discovered that when you ask a child to explain what he’s learned, he reinforces those skills.  Nothing like teaching something to make you learn it even stronger.

  6. Read the math book.  Too many kids skip over the words in the math book, concentrating only on the number problems.  Make sure he’s reading the explanatory words, too.  The best math texts have helpful examples, practice exercises, and explanations.

  7. Get a study buddy.  Another one of my favorite learning strategies.  When two or more motivated kids study together, they increase their opportunities to learn from each other in “kid speak,” to ask immediate questions, to challenge each other, to encourage each other, and to celebrate with each other.  No reason why learning can’t be fun and social, too.

  8. Monitor daily.  The final step in the homework process is your checking the work for timeliness, neatness, and completeness.  You don’t have to be an expert in the subject, but it’s good for him to know you’re going to be checking it.  You’re allowed to give your own pop quizzes, too.

  9. Use math around the house.  Use every opportunity to “speak matharound the house  (cooking, measuring), while playing (keeping score, understanding stats), while watching TV (count the commercials with the youngest math learners, if you can count that high), while eating in restaurants (help with figuring a 15% or 20% tip), or while driving (figuring out mileage or distance).

  10. Work with the teacher.  Ask for suggestions to help at homework time and for help with dealing with math strategies that are different from the ones you learned while you were learning math many years ago.  Be careful of confusing the child.

Math homework time does not have to be stressful.  Show your child that his learning math is important to you, that you’re going to be involved in his learning, and that you’re going to have high expectations.  He’ll rise to those expectations.



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