And Then There's Mathematics

January 17, 2020

Beside my status as a certified oldster, there are many things that parents bring to me or talk about that make me feel increasingly cranky.

One that gets me regularly irritable is the current state of affairs relative to the teaching of mathematics, in particular in relation to struggling elementary school children.

I don’t know when it occurred or what was behind it (I have my suspicions which I will leave out of this), but from what I can tell the teaching of math has changed over the years, based on two things that I frequently see.

The first is what I will call the Sacredness of the Mathematic Word Problem.

As recently told to me by a mom regarding her 7 year old, second grade child, Sydney,  who doesn’t read very well, she noted that the Sydney’s class  receives virtually no traditional mathematic problems presented in purely number form (i.e., not word problems).

While Sydney has shown good mathematic instincts outside of school, she is already feeling insecure and shut-down with the daily bombardment of word problems, along with her struggles with reading, spelling and writing.

Sydney’s  parents were hoping that she could at least shine in math, but sadly this was not the case.

As the mom said, “I don’t get it.  I’m not exaggerating.  It’s January and maybe one time so far this year Sydney was given traditional math problems on the page with just numbers.  Whether it’s classwork or homework it’s always the same, word problem after word problem.  Along with the fact the fact that she can’t decode well, she has comprehension issues, so what do they expect her to do? She’s freaking out because she can’t read the word problems.”

It’s not that I don’t understand the value of mathematic word problems, especially for children in the upper grades, but for the  Sydneys of the word, the word problems are just one more reminder of their weaknesses.

The fact of the matter is that many of the children who are struggling with reading, spelling and writing often have solid mathematic instincts.

It’s a shame that they just can’t show them.

The second phenomena on the surface may seem trivial, but I do think for the children of concern the issue represents a challenge.

This phenomena is the insistence that at those rare times the children are given  more traditional mathematic problems, the problems are rarely presented in a vertical format, but are largely presented  horizontally.

For example, instead of:

  12
 x 3

or

   57

+ 32

The problems are given horizontally, as in 12 x 3 =  ?  and  57 + 32  = ?

It’s probably my own mathematic limitations, but I of consistently find the horizontal presentation of mathematic problems to be more challenging than when they are presented vertically.

Of course, educators may respond that it is good for children to be thinking flexibly and I support this notion, but again, for the children of concern, the whole show is hard enough for them to manage without adding one more compounding variable.

Takeaway Point

If you see your child struggling because of word problem confusion or difficulty navigating horizontal math problems, talk to the teacher.  Maybe sensitizing her to the issues can help.

With your child, help them to sort it all out. That is, without doing the problems for your child, help setting up the problems so it is more understandable.


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All comments (4)
  • Anne Watt
    January 17, 2020 at 7:51 pm

    Oh, I agree with you! The comment about how good this is for children (the word problems) makes me pull out my soap box and […] Read MoreOh, I agree with you! The comment about how good this is for children (the word problems) makes me pull out my soap box and step upon it. Is it good because it makes a child think through things? How do we know that? Who decided that? Is that the same thinking that having children copy things from a board or screen helps them read through the material as they write it? I feel these are the same people who have never watched a child with dyslexia or dysgraphia try to copy a math problem or a spelling word from a board or a screen. Can we ever let go of "old" thoughts and really look at individual children today? I will continue to work from my corner while I depend on you working from your corner. Soon, we will have all the corners and angles covered and hopefully from around our education system, the echo of " Oh my gosh!! We need to look at this differently," will ring throughout our land. I appreciate your work and insight tremendously. Read Less

    Reply
    • Richard Selznick, Ph.D.
      @Anne Watt
      January 22, 2020 at 6:55 pm

      Thanks, Ann. Great comment. So appreciate your perspective and comment. Appreciate your reading my stuff and thank you so much for your […] Read MoreThanks, Ann. Great comment. So appreciate your perspective and comment. Appreciate your reading my stuff and thank you so much for your nice words. richard Read Less

      Reply
  • Stanley Sterenberg
    January 19, 2020 at 12:24 am

    Word problems are definitely more challenging for struggling readers, often making them think they are not good in math, as you suggest. Here is something […] Read MoreWord problems are definitely more challenging for struggling readers, often making them think they are not good in math, as you suggest. Here is something parents can do to help their children develop some confidence by building mental math proficiency -- through "mystery number" problems. You start with easy ones -- "If you add four to my number you get 16 -- what's my number," then slightly harder -- "if you double my number you get 24 -- what's my number." and then compound problems, "if you double my number and add 4, the result is 20 -- what's my number?" Done carefully, to ensure early success, kids will often say "give me another one" -- an example of success giving rise to more success. These compound problems are like mental pushups -- requiring the solver to go backwards in two different ways -- reversing both the order of the steps, and using the opposite operation to "undo" the initial operation. For the earlier compound problem, the child first "undoes" adding four by subtracting four from 20, yielding 16, then "undoes" doubling by halving the 16, to get 8, the correct answer. Additionally, the answer can be checked by going "forward" -- doubling 8 and adding 4, to see if that yields 20 (which it obviously does). This takes the reading part out, and permits the child to enjoy some success while developing number fluency and confidence in his/her/their mental math ability. The key is to start out with problems that are easily solvable, but lead to a thirst for more. Good luck to anyone who tries this. Read Less

    Reply
    • Thanks, Stanley, very much appreciated and love the idea of the "mental push-ups." Great suggestion for people to pick up on. I think […] Read MoreThanks, Stanley, very much appreciated and love the idea of the "mental push-ups." Great suggestion for people to pick up on. I think I could have used more of these myself back in P.S. 30!!!!! Read Less

      Reply

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