Supporting Math Learning

Comparing how parents support learning to read versus learning math.

Why do you want your child to become proficient in reading? I have asked this question of hundreds of parents and the answers always include: “to experience the joy of reading,” “to learn to love books,” and sometimes, “to be able to function in adult life.” When I ask them how their child is motivated to learn to read and what they do to encourage it, they say, “reading aloud,” and “provide the kind of reading materials my child enjoys.”

When I ask the same questions about math, parents typically say things like: “I want my child to learn math so he can understand money, get into college, get a job, handle her finances, do well on tests.” To motivate their children, they try to find the best math books they can and they make them do their math on a regular basis.

Comparing their approach to reading with the typical approach to math, it is clear that parents don’t typically put “joy” and “mathematics” together as either goal or motivation even when they do that when it comes to reading. Why not?

You might want to stop here and think a bit about your own attitude toward math. What are your goals for your children in learning math? What do you wish for them? How do you support or encourage them? Lots of times people are really not all that clear on why they even care if their kids learn math; they’ve just accepted it that it is important, and they really can’t articulate why that is – especially beyond some pretty simple arithmetic that is used in everyday life. Few parents find math enjoyable and few feel very competent in math themselves. It’s no wonder that math is the subject homeschooling parents worry about most. And it’s no wonder that they find it hard to support mathematics learning in the same encouraging and enjoyable way they do reading.

Becoming aware of our own math hang-ups can help us set them aside so that we can appreciatively enjoy and happily support what our children bring into our lives, even when it involves math.


6 Comments (+add yours?)

  1. TB
    Apr 01, 2010 @ 16:22:31

    I struggle with unschooling math, not so much that I have a “fear” of it/math itself because I don’t understand it (I was actually quite good at it in school), but I fear “unschooling” it “wrong” if that makes any sense.

    I have over the years just talked with the kids (girl 10 and boy 7 yrs) about what comes up in everyday life, point out comparisons, money, etc. We ask questions and talk. My kids have never seen a hint of a math workbook, cusinaire rods, anything, purchased by me that looks like “school math”, even though I know it may help to explain a concept that may have come up in our everyday life (like place value blocks now that I see them interested in reading their computer game scores) as it’s like I fear that there is some “unschooling police” somewhere saying “that’s curriculum/that’s schooly”….at least I have read many hints of this insinuation online over the years. My dd (10) is also very much a whole to part/right brained sort of learner….any sort of sequential step by step learning like how *I* remember math in school REALLY turns her off, and I have sensed a resistance/panic in her about math/numeracy in the little bit of “school like” math she has come across.

    How silly is all this, my fears of things being too Schooly? This talking and not doing a curriculum (although Pam I have heard some of your math talks on tape and agree with your thoughts of curriculum) all has translated into having a 10yr old who has never added 2 or 3 column numbers on paper no less knows “Times tables”, who has to count on fingers in adding facts under 10 still. She has a brother who LOVES all this, who thinks it is a fascinating game. Reading and the other “3r’s” as practical skills came about so easily to her as part of doing them in real life for real life reasons yet math for her seems not to be happening in the same way.

    I am in a panic at times over this, yet sit spinning my wheels at how to “approach” math with a kid like her so it is a vicious cycle…I am unsure how to find a “balance” here and not panic and just start doing out of context Saxon everyday, LOL, and would love your advice.



  2. Pam Sorooshian
    Apr 01, 2010 @ 21:23:25

    Sounds like throwing out the baby with the bathwater. Cuisinaire Rods and pattern blocks and geo boards and unit blocks and computer games like the Mighty Math series and the Logical Journey of the Zoombinis — those can all be really really fun when they’re treated like toys, not like lessons and assignments.

    Don’t avoid anything that might be also used in schooling; some of those things are great. Don’t “school” with them – play with them, learn with them.

    Some kids like workbooks. Don’t refuse them, but don’t force them to do them. Don’t force them to do them “right.”

    Teacher supply stores used to have a lot more cool things – these days they are more filled with testing materials. But, still, they have some cool science stuff (magnets, globes) and puppets and puzzles from children’s books, and math toys and more. We treated school supply stores like toy stores.

    There is a BIG gap between having fun playing around with pattern blocks and geo boards and making kids do Saxon math every day.



  3. TB
    Apr 05, 2010 @ 08:49:55

    “…those can all be really fun when they’re treated like toys, not like lessons or assignments.” And, “…don’t school with them–play with them, learn with them”

    Thank you for taking the time to post a reply Pam. These two things really jumped out at me. I need to relax and just “play” as you said, and not worry that they aren’t “playing enough” with said object (OMG I sound like a Montessori person with that approach LOL!)….that’s the “drill and practice ad nauseum” coming from my own schooling to haunt me. I think I am still seeing math as divorced from real life.

    I need to breathe the Mantra “this is fun” or let’s just play, not “O this will help then learn “x” skill.

    I certainly haven’t felt this way about anything else that has happened in my children’s learning like picking up the skill of reading, or exploring what has been regarded by others as “science” topics. Funny how I can relax about that stuff but not math and not trust myself to explore real life opportunities with them, or that the need for the “real life math skills” I have as an adult will never come into their lives or they will pick up that knowledge when they need it like they do everything else.

    Once again thanks so much for posting this!



  4. Magical Childhood
    May 13, 2010 @ 08:26:27

    Brilliant! This was really simple and helpful. Thank you!



  5. Trackback: » Math Realization Magic and Mayhem
  6. Trackback: Thinking About Mathematics | Unschooling Conversations

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