When Math Doesn’t Come Easily

Most adults can recall feeling a momentary panic in a math class at one time or another, but some children feel despair about math daily. They may struggle through math lessons for many reasons: attitude, handwriting difficulty, poor number sense, language-based learning disability, or difficulties with memory, fear, or discouragement. We can address these effectively in many ways.

Handwriting Difficulty

Here are quick strategies for handwriting struggles:

  • Teach correct numeral formation to reduce stress on hand and arm.
  • Use number stamps and an inkpad instead of writing.
  • Turn notebook paper sideways. Use the lines to keep the digits aligned.
  • Align numbers with enlarged graph paper or create this yourself.
  • Allow math dictation software.
  • Provide graphing calculators for algebra and beyond. Students can demonstrate changing slope and y-intercept and see effects without laboriously plotting each point.
  • Practice math facts with non-written exercises: games, flashcards, oral recitation.
Number Sense

Some children suffer from poor number sense. Does your son understand that “four” = “4” = “this many” (4 physical objects)? If your student divides 100 by 8 and gets 125 (instead of the correct answer of 12.5), does he think to question how the quotient can be larger than the dividend? Here are some ways to improve number sense:

  • Build bundles of craft sticks to teach place value: ones, tens, ten tens to make a hundred, and ten hundreds to make a thousand. Then build numbers, add, and subtract with them.
  • Give varied measurement cups for pouring water (or sand in a sandbox).
  • Use games with dice and dominoes to teach subitizing (rapid recognition of how many objects are in a small group without counting).
  • Build numbers with base ten blocks, then add and subtract with them.
  • Cut paper plates or tortillas into half-circles, one-, two- and three-quarter circles, and one- and two-thirds circles. Show two pieces and ask which is larger. Give practice in finding equivalent fractions and then adding with them.
  • When introducing integer arithmetic, have your child step up and down stairs to act out addition and subtraction. Begin at a landing, representing zero. For example: 6 + -2 means go up six, then down two.
Language-Based Learning Disabilities

Language difficulties can hamper math, especially when trying to comprehend a new procedure. Here are some tips:

  • Teach the language of mathematics slowly and explicitly with simple computations. Use Orton-Gillingham principles, which help teach reading to students with dyslexia, with your math instruction.
  • Note discrepancies of language: We have tenths and fourths, but not two-ths.
  • Incorporate hand motions.
  • Use mnemonics. Conduct an internet search for “math mnemonics” for ideas.
  • Have students highlight or underline words in word problems that correspond to math operations: “Six people were in the car and two got out—that’s subtraction.”
  • Have children act out many examples of one kind of word problem with toys.
  • Practice the example problems yourself before teaching to make sure they are not unnecessarily hard.
  • Focus practice on just one step of a difficult procedure.
  • Highlight key elements of multi-step problems with colored markers or pencils.
  • Let the student build physical examples of concepts. For example: Introduce the concept of ¾ by building ¾ of a square with pattern blocks or constructing ¾ of a circle by placing 3 circle quarters together.
  • Label with both words and numbers, and with the fraction bar both horizontal and diagonal, as in ¾ and ¾.
  • Don’t jump to conclusions about your child’s abilities. New developments in neuroscience help us understand and teach to the difficulties that many students face.
Memory and Math Facts
  • Use triangle or “triplet” flashcards to teach multiplication fact families, e.g., 3 x 5 = 15, 5 x 3 = 15, 15 ÷ 3 = 5, 15 ÷ 5 = 3 can all be taught from the 3—5—15 triangle card.
  • Teach skip-counting using chants or songs.
  • Teach math facts using stories. Give each digit its own character: 1 might be a giraffe, 2 a swan, etc.
  • Give untimed practice.
  • Tape a number line on the desktop, and let fingers walk up and down to solve problems.
  • After daily practice of math facts, allow the student to use a times table or practice basic calculator functions.

In all of these struggles, attitude can affect learning. Does your child think every success is a fluke and every failure is proof of inability? Maybe you dread math yourself, and your attitude is infecting your children. Attitudes can be addressed and adjusted, but it takes time, encouragement, and often a fresh approach.

Galileo wrote: “Mathematics is the language in which God has written the universe.” As we explore math we see patterns God has built into the world. He created a universe where numbers can describe the movements of the planets, the spiral of a nautilus, and the growth rate of cells. Look for the patterns. Play with numbers. Relax and enjoy mathematics!

Kathy Kuhl, author of Homeschooling Your Struggling Learner and Encouraging Your Child, is a friend to Simply Classical and can be found at LearnDifferently.com. Kathy lives in Virginia with her husband with whom she enjoys traveling worldwide, including visiting their grandchildren.

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