Plugging Along with Math

Oh math. Oh the trials and difficulties. Oh the struggle. Oh the necessity.

I won’t pull punches about this subject – math is something that seems to have plagued me my whole life! In fifth grade, I was the kid who had to go sit at a table in the back of the class beside the teacher while I did my math work. Otherwise, it never got finished.

I took pre-algebra twice because the first time made absolutely no sense to me whatsoever. I plodded along through algebra and passed without ever feeling completely comfortable with any part of it. I really liked geometry, but it seemed very, very different from “standard math.”

Mastering Mathematics

In teaching my own kids, things haven’t gotten much easier. I did finally learn to add without counting on my fingers thanks to Math U See, which I think is a fantastic curriculum though we don’t use it anymore.

If you’ve ever used Math U See with your children, you know that it stresses mastery and strongly urges parents not to move their children to a new topic until the current topic is fully mastered.

This means that a child is expected to be able to answer each addition and subtraction fact (8+9, 7+6, 15-9, etc.) within three seconds before moving on to learn about multiplication. Believing this was the right way for all children, I spent more than two years drilling my oldest son, Nick, on the addition and subtraction facts … and seeing very little progress toward “mastery.”

After a time, I did move on and introduce him to multiplication and division – he’s understood every new math concept readily and really enjoys learning new aspects of math. I then started drilling him on the multiplication facts … and again saw very little progress toward the three-second mastery.

It’s been frustrating for both of us to say the least, but it’s also helped me grow in my understanding of different children, how they learn, and how mental maturity isn’t gained by daily practice of any subject.

Visualizing Math

I gave up Math U See a couple years ago and moved into a much more relaxed approached. We used Ray’s Arithmetic (the book that was used in one-room schoolhouses during the 1800s) for about a year. I love that Ray’s approaches math orally instead of focusing almost exclusively on worksheets the way so many other programs do.

The Ray’s approach is actually quite different from what I was used to – different from the way I had learned and different from the way I had taught. It’s oral, like I said, which means that the teacher/parent asks a question and the child tells the answer in a specific form. In my opinion, it is excellent for building mental math skills – something that is completely ignored in most modern math curricula. Here’s an example…

 Matt visited the market and purchased six apples at nine cents each. How much did he spend?

Six apples times nine cents each is 54 cents.

Also, Ray’s teaches children to visualize numbers and values instead of counting them. For young children, the teacher is supposed avoid teaching the child to count and instead is advised to show the children groups of ten or fewer objects and teach them to recognize the number of objects without counting. This, obviously, can be a very beneficial foundation for all sorts of math figuring but is so dramatically different from what we’re all used to.

Real Life with Math on the Level

After about a year, I began to be concerned that the boys weren’t covering all the material that they needed to (fractions, decimals, and so on).  Ray’s does cover those topics, but I was still focusing considerably on mastering the multiplication facts with Nick and neglecting the other topics to a certain extent.

I began to feel that I really wanted a more concrete guide to what math topics we should cover at any given time.

After researching and reading about different programs for several months, I decided to buy Math on the Level. It’s quite expensive so it took me several more months of saving before we could purchase it, but we’ve now been using it since November.

Math on the Level takes a more “natural” approach to math, meaning that it uses lots of real life situations and activities to teach math concepts and to practice them. This fits very well with our family’s general approach to learning through our normal daily lives.

In addition to the real world math, the backbone of Math on the Level is the “five a day” math review. The program comes with several types of spreadsheets that allow parents to track what each child had learned and how much additional practice/review they need. For each math topic that a child has learned, it can be reviewed

  • Daily
  • Every other day
  • Every three or four days
  • Weekly
  • Every two or three weeks
  • Monthly

Parents can use either the manual, paper tracking pages or a special computer spreadsheet designed by the creators of Math on the Level. I used the paper record sheets for a while but quickly changed over to the computer spreadsheet, which plots the different topics on a calendar for me (much easier).

Each child then gets a “five a day” math page with five problems, each from a different topic. This way, the child continually reviews each topic but never gets overwhelmed by a whole page filled with multiplication, division, or fractions.

I can see now how I was smothering Nick with so many daily multiplication problems. I thought the incessant practice would help him to memorize the problems, but I see now that it was just hindering him and making him dread multiplication and math all the more.

The program is quite teacher-intensive, which is usually something I do not to mess with! Just like with Peterson Handwriting, though, all that teacher preparation makes for a great pay off in what the boys are learning and how they’re progressing.

I won’t pretend that we suddenly have math geniuses running around the house, but I am happy that we’re doing math each day and covering at least one or two new topics each week. Things are going quite well with Math on the Level.

Use a Calculator?

Even with our success using the program, though, Nick is still struggling with multiplication. For whatever reason, the facts still don’t come easily to him. He has made great strides but still isn’t “there,” which is frustrating for both of us. I still have that niggling thought in the back of my mind that he should have mastered the facts already even though I know the timing is different for each person.

On the Math on the Level Yahoo group, I read some messages recently from moms whose children also have struggles with memorizing math facts … and I came upon a suggestion that I’ve never seen any where else. Let him use a calculator.

My first thought was – no way! That’s cheating after all. Right?

The person who suggested this said to look at it as a crutch … a temporary help to overcome the obstacle that’s stopping him from moving forward. She said that, for some children, using the calculator leads to eventual memorization where oral or written drill has failed.

Hmm, that actually makes sense.

So we’re trying it.

I gave Nick the calculator last week and told him he could use it only for single numbers (i.e. 5×7 but not 58×67). He still has to go through all the steps just as if he didn’t have the calculator. So far, I can’t really tell if it’s being helpful or not. Time will tell.

Visit the rest of this week’s Virtual Curriculum Fair for more words of wisdom on math.

© 2012, Cindy. All rights reserved.


  1. My oldest has similar difficulties with "memorizing" math facts. I've discovered that he's a visual learner and needs to form a strong picture of each fact in his mind to be able to recall it. If you don't like the calculator idea (I haven't used it myself, so don't know how well it works) another thing you could try is giving him a filled in multiplication chart. The very act of looking up each fact may help him to form a strong visual connection in his brain…just another idea to try.

    Thank you for joining the Virtual Curriculum Fair, this is a great post! Tweeting. ;0)
    Susan´s last blog post ..1st, 2nd, 6th Grade Math in Our Homeschool: How We Got HERE

  2. Another Math on the Level user. I love finding them. Nice to meet you.

  3. I am not a stickler for memorization, because I think it will come with time and use, but I like the idea of providing the chart more than a calculator. Seems to me there would be something about using that chart over and over that would make learning the answers happen more than punching the numbers into a calculator in isolation — especially if he had to make his own chart every couple of months or so.

  4. My 11yr son also has some difficulties remembering his multiplication facts. We have tried flash cards, songs, and just about everything else. One thing that really helped was a completed multiplication chart. We worked together on completing the chart. I then laminated it and placed it in his binder. He still uses it, but not as much now. I have also started to let him use a calculator to 'check his answers'. If he gets the answer wrong, we will go over together.

    Another blogger participating in the Fair has a wonderful post on math lapbooks. I am going to make one for my children.
    Chrissy´s last blog post .."Mom, did we do math today?"

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