At my favorite coffee shop this week the barista asked me if I had any advice for helping her daughter with her math homework, and helping her daughter with her math facts. I sort of talked her ear off until she had to help the next person. Today it occurred to me that other people might have the same question, and also I had a lot more to say about that.
So many students come to me in 7th or 8th grade struggling because they don’t know their math facts well. If they don’t know their math facts (ie 7×7=49) then when they’re trying to do things like long division or multiplication or even algebra things like foiling, every time they run into something they need to multiply they have to stop and figure it out by counting on their fingers or adding up a whole list of 6’s, and it completely distracts them from the problem they’re working on. Lots of times it looks like they’re struggling with what they’re learning, but really it’s just that they haven’t memorized their math facts well enough.
However, I also meet students in high school who hate math (and therefore science and most of the really profitable careers) because someone tried to force them to learn their math facts in a way that made them feel really ashamed and frustrated and bitter.
So, it’s a tight rope, and it needs to be done, but it needs to be done carefully. Ideally, learning math facts can be fun.
A great place to start is with computer games like In Search of Spot or Number Munchers.
Flash cards can be great, if you can make it fun. (i.e. positive. Praise them for getting facts correct, don’t say anything if they get it incorrect. Say things like ‘whoa that was fast!’ when they answer a fact more quickly than usual.) 5-10 minutes each day is ideal, don’t make it too long or it stops being fun.
I like these flash cards.
You can also get infinitely many free math drills here.
Weird New Ways of Solving Problems
A lot of time students come in with a familiar type of problem, but their teacher is having them solve it in a way I’ve never seen before. Long division methods change all the time. So do factoring methods. This is really hard, because you want to help and explain things, and the way you’ve always done things is so familiar. But, learning multiple methods is really confusing for kids. It’s almost always better to try to teach them the method they’re learning in class. Because their teacher will build off that later.
This, of course, means that if you’re going to help them with their homework you have to first try to understand this new method yourself. The first thing you need to know is that it’s probably more similar than it looks at first, and if you think about it for a while and look at slides/notes from the teacher you can usually figure it out. There are also lots of online resources that will explain these new methods. My two favorites are Khan Academy and Purple Math.
Also, if you run into something you’re stuck on, post a comment here or email me and I can try to help.
In general, especially for younger students, the absolute most important thing is that it’s fun for them, and that they start to feel like math is something they can be good at. That idea will get them through many future math classes and will help them be successful eventually, no matter how hard it is.