Mind the Math Gap

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When I visited London in the late 90s, which, by the way, seems like a lifetime away, I learned a phrase they use on the subway (or underground) every time doors open and people get on and off. The recording says, “Mind the gap!”

The gap refers to the hole between the platform and the inside of the train. It’s a small gap, but nevertheless people can get caught in it if they step a certain way, or if not people, their rolling luggage or a pet or whatever is dragging behind them on the floor.

I will have to ask my friends who live in London if they still say that on the underground. It’s very catchy, especially if you hear that seven times in the morning and seven times at night on your daily commute. I suppose one blocks it out after awhile.

Math Mammoth First Grade

Math Mammoth First Grade

When I recently read about the homeschool math gap, I remembered the London underground. But then I came back to my homeschool reality. This is some serious research and some good information to have, my dear homeschooling friends.

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Did you know that homeschooling students fare a lot better on the language arts section of standardized tests than in the math portion? It is a lot easier to teach children how to read than to drill them in math facts. When one can go to the library and bring home 10 books and repeat the process every week, one’s vocabulary grows at a nice rate.

But what about math? There are so many complaints about children being in tears about math all over the internet. So we come up with manipulatives and unusual ways to explain abstract concepts to little people.

I myself have already tried four math curricula, while still eyeing more from a distance, and we don’t even have tears during math. We went from Singapore Math to Right Start Math to Math Mammoth, while using Life of Fred as a fun supplement.

We are happy with Math Mammoth for now and I think we will be here to stay through sixth grade. Maybe. But that does not mean that we don’t play some of the math games we learned through Right Start or other games, which I found online, using dominoes.

I will close this post about math with a testimony from a friend of mine, a mom of two small children, who was homeschooled in her childhood. She took me aside and whispered to me, “I am preparing to go to dental school and have a hard time remembering math facts. My mom never drilled me. I have to stop and think about 6×8, for instance. Please make sure you drill your children, otherwise they will be handicapped for the rest of their lives. Here I am reciting multiplication tables to myself at night, a mom of two, going to graduate school!”

She was nice to share her testimony with me, wasn’t she? I thanked her profusely and made mental notes of her words. In big block letters. Red. Must drill math facts. Must. Must. Must. I don’t want a gap between my children’s math scores and language arts scores, do you?


3 Reasons to Switch Curriculum Mid-Semester

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I never wanted to switch curriculum mid-year, let alone mid-semester, partly because I am frugal and partly because I think that being flexible in homeschooling does not mean being indulgent. But then, I found myself teaching preschool math from a kindergarten textbook to a kindergartner who in reality operated on a first grade level.

One of the many reasons I homeschool my children is that it allows for a customized educational experience. By doing so, I go against the flow even in the USA. More Americans customize their cup of coffee than their children’s education, which is sad to me.

If you find yourself in any of the following situations, you will want to switch curriculum mid-semester, too.

1. Your child’s mind operates on a different level than the textbook. Every time I said “Time for math,” my son groaned. I added more manipulatives before our very minimal pen and paper practice. After all, he is a boy. The manipulatives helped a bit, which bought me more time to decide if I was dealing with an attitude or a real situation.

One day, he told me that he liked math better than reading. This confused me even further, because he reads on a third grade level and he loves books. A few days later, out of the blue, he wrote addition facts – and we have not even covered addition – on several pieces of paper and stapled the pages into a booklet. My son was asking to be challenged.

2. The textbook level is different than the content it promises. After teaching Singapore Math Earlybird Kindergarten for seven weeks, I realized it contained preschool material.

I received confirmation of that fact one day when my daughter’s preschool Rod and Staff workbook coincided with my son’s Singapore Math Kindergarten lesson – matching quantities by drawing lines.

3. The curriculum has the wrong approach either in general or for your child’s learning style. In our case, Singapore Math had the wrong approach in general. As I wondered how to advance my son without skipping math concepts he might not have already grasped, a homeschooling friend sent me an email extolling the benefits of Right Start Mathematics (RSM). Providential? I think so.

Here’s what I found out. Of course one can add more manipulatives and make Singapore Math more hands on. But, ultimately, it is still a traditional approach to math – numbers are points along a line, each being “one more” than the previous.

RSM, on the other hand, de-emphasizes counting and provides strategies (visualization of quantities) for learning math facts. For instance, RSM groups quantities in fives and tens. This enables your child to recognize quantities without counting. RSM students visualize seven as five and two, eight as five and three etc.

Based on Montessori principles and abacus work, RSM practices math concepts through games and very few worksheets. In my situation, the best part is that, as an entry level, RSM Level B (which corresponds to First Grade) covers all the basic math facts from the beginning, but faster than Level A.

My son loves building with LEGO bricks and finds the abacus fascinating. He has already found ways to build designs with it, beyond his math assignments.

If you need support, check out the RSM How To Videos. I found the RSM Yahoo Group members and archived files extremely helpful while researching whether I should switch.

Homeschooling happens at the intersection of our expectations and our children’s behavior and performance in class. By switching to RSM Level B, I placed my son in first grade and – bonus – I found a better way to do math. Have you ever had to switch curriculum mid-semester? Please leave me a comment below.


Rod & Staff Preschool Workbooks

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Earlier this year, while my son and I were doing math, my daughter asked to do math, too. He is five. She is three. I use Singapore Math Earlybird Kindergarten with him and I really like it, by the way. But alas, Singapore Math does not publish a preschool workbook. What’s a homeschooling mother to do?

For a while, I printed worksheets for my daughter from the internet. When I got tired of it, I investigated around and found the Rod & Staff Preschool Workbooks. They come in two series: one for ages 3-4 and the other for ages 4-5. Since my son was still in preschool (technically speaking), I ordered both series.

My daughter loved her workbooks from the start. She finished one in two sittings. It was almost scary. She kept turning the page saying, “One more.”

Rod and Staff Preschool

Rod and Staff Workbooks for ages 3-4

She seems to be a natural pen-and-paper learner but, of course, she still likes hands-on activities, too – and we do plenty of those. As a younger sibling, she has been learning new concepts by osmosis on a daily basis. I work with my son and she plays nearby, within earshot. She absorbs information without realizing it.

I was amazed at how much she already knew as we worked through these booklets. The whole experience felt like a review of material I never covered with her. But it did not feel like a waste of time. We practiced important study skills like following directions, working on a page from top to bottom and from left to right, and stopping when the attention span wanes.

It also felt like the perfect way to ease her into the role of student and me into the role of teacher. For three years, I have been mommy. Now I am her teacher, too. We uncovered a new layer in our relationship.

The publishers have included cut and paste activities throughout, not just matching, drawing lines, coloring and tracing. The black-and-white format does not catch the eye, but it does the job. My daughter never objected to it in the beginning. However, after a few weeks of sitting next to her brother, who was working through his colorful Singapore Math workbook, she asked for a book “like his.” I told her she would get one “like his” when she gets to kindergarten.

I believe three-year-olds are too young to trace neatly. We skipped the tracing pages or, if she asked me to do it, I traced to show her the motions, by saying out loud, for instance, “To make a one, we go from top to bottom.”

As to my son, the workbooks for four- and five-year-olds never appealed to him, probably because (1) they were below his level and (2) Singapore Math offers tactile practice before asking a young child to show understanding of an abstract concept with pen and paper. So my daughter may inherit the Rod and Staff books for the next level.

Don’t you just love homeschooling? Things don’t always go as planned, but they work out in the end.


Singapore Math Earlybird Kindergarten

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Three criteria steered me in the direction of Singapore Math (SM) for my son’s homeschool kindergarten year. Here they are, in no particular order:

1. I feel strongly that little children in general and little boys in particular need lots of hands-on activities to grasp abstract concepts. SM provides lots of practical activities in one lesson before asking a young child to use pen and paper and demonstrate understanding. The written practice is short and sweet, too.

2. I believe that math, like any other subject, can be as boring or as exciting as a teacher makes it. SM makes math fun to teach. As I bring out visual aids and tactile props, my son gets excited. I enjoy watching him learn. Probably because it feels like play time. No groans – like the time I put a Rod and Staff workbook in front of him. He comes up with his own way of using these manipulatives, too. I believe it proves instruction just took place.

3. Asian students always win or place very high in international math competitions. I grew up in Romania and I know that plenty of Romanian students win or place high, as well. Because of my background, I am not bound to the American way of looking at numbers. SM comes close to the way I learned math.

Singapore Math Earlybird Kindergarten

Book A

The book is colorful, which helps a young child, I think. The lessons are short and move from hands-on to abstract, a transition that is not always easy. However, I noticed that if I let him “play” with the manipulatives long enough, he is more inclined to color in/match/draw lines in the book afterwards.

I like the emphasis on vocabulary and proper grammar, too. The books suggests the teacher have the child repeat full sentences about the new concept, e.g. “The pattern repeats itself every three pieces.”

All in all, we love Singapore Math Earlybird Kindergarten. Besides the workbooks (A and B), we bought the ten booklets suggested, which contain nursery rhymes like Hickory, Dickory, Dock or classic stories like Goldilocks and the Three Bears. Though not required, these readers add to the overall experience and show my son that math is all around us.

Bonus: my daughter joins us for reading time, so we are all together again. I love the way homeschooling facilitates learning and bonding as a family.