Welcome to my new weekly math advice column, Ask Kate! For this first week, I’m highlighting a question I received from Kara Anderson about math gaps last summer. I’d been reading Kara’s encouraging, funny, and wise essays on motherhood and homeschooling for years before I finally got to meet her in person at a convention. She’s just as kind and warm-hearted in person as she is in her writing, and I was honored when she came to me for math advice.
Kara describes the math panic that brought her to me in her new book, More than Enough, so I’ll let her take it from here:
In the midst of writing this book, I am planning our 2019-2020 school year.
And of course, I’m panicking about math.
This isn’t unusual. I’ve been actively panicking about math since 7th grade when I started Algebra and almost instantly felt behind…
As a writer, I never needed do much math other than figuring out how to stretch the last $40 in my checking account.
But as a homeschool mom, my own math anxiety has created some issues. The biggest of those is that I want my kids to have a better relationship with math than I do.
This was easy when they were young. We played a lot of games, and had fun with books like the Bedtime Math Series.
But as my kids got older, I tried introducing more formal curriculum.
All would be well until we hit something difficult, and then I would close the book for a bit. I figured that if math was making my kids cry, they were in danger of turning into math-averse people. I didn’t want to push.
Which meant that we swapped out math curriculum A LOT – and which meant that as my kids built math skills, there were gaps.
The other issue was that my kids learned short-cuts, which meant they could often figure out the correct answers, but couldn’t explain how they got there. And as I tried to unravel their work…we had no shared math language. It was hard to communicate as we worked together.
This is how I found myself reaching out to my friend Kate Snow from Kate’s Homeschool Math.
In one hour, she helped me see a clear path out of this mess, because math is her thing.
How to deal with math gaps
Kara’s definitely not alone here—I bet a lot of you can relate! I often get emails from parents who are in the same boat. Sometimes they’ve been homeschooling all along, other times they’ve just pulled their kids out of school, but what they have in common is that they’re worried their child’s math gaps will keep them from achieving their goals.
If you’re worried that your child is behind in math or has significant gaps, first here’s my big-picture advice.
1. Take a deep breath. We all want what’s best for our kids, and it’s easy to beat ourselves up when we realize that our kids have missed something. But you can’t change the past, and I bet you were doing the best you could at the time. So, let the guilt go, and move on! You have not ruined your child’s life, and it is totally possible to fill in those gaps.
2. What’s the goal? Before you start downloading samples and poring through curriculum options, first figure out your big-picture goal. For elementary-age kids, this might be very simple. For example: Help my 8-year-old catch up on addition and subtraction so she can start the third-grade book in September.
For middle-school and high-school kids, make sure to take into account the credits your child will eventually need to graduate in your state. (A quick internet search should help you figure this out.) For example, your goal might be: Make it through the basic courses in Algebra I, Geometry, and Algebra II by the end of 12th grade in order to fulfill my state’s graduation requirements.
Make sure to write down your goal so that you don’t lose sight of it once you dive into curriculum options. You may be surprised that the task of filling in gaps isn’t so overwhelming once you define exactly what you need to accomplish.
3. Focus on gradual progress, not grade level. Grade levels vary tremendously from program to program, especially in the middle school years. Just because a child is behind grade level doesn’t mean he won’t be able to finish the math courses needed to graduate. Focus on what you can control: teaching well, scheduling a consistent math time, and using high-quality resources.
4. Triage. If your child is far behind in math, you don’t have time to tackle every single skill he may have missed along the way. Focus on the most important concepts and skills, not the details. Here are your priorities:
- How to add, subtract, multiply, and divide whole numbers
- How to add, subtract, multiply, and divide fractions, decimals, and percents
Once your child has these skills reasonably under control, you’re ready to start pre-algebra. If your child is in middle-school or later and still struggling with skills like long division or multi-digit multiplication, it’s probably time to allow him to use a calculator or multiplication table in order to move forward. I’m big on helping kids master the math facts, but sometimes you just have to let them go. It’s not ideal, but sometimes it really is the best option.
(You may notice that I don’t include skills like geometry, measurement, or probability here. That’s because they’re not essential for kids to master in the younger years in order to make it through high school coursework. No one failed high-school algebra because they didn’t remember how to convert meters to yards. But kids who don’t know how to add fractions or multiply whole numbers will have a tough time.)
The nitty-gritty: My favorite resources for filling in math gaps
Normally, I strongly recommend that parents use comprehensive, full-year homeschool math programs for thorough coverage and plenty of practice. But when you’re filling in gaps, you need to move more quickly! Here are my favorite resources for targeted instruction that will help you close those gaps as painlessly and efficiently as possible. I’ve grouped them by topic to make it easier to compare options.
Whole Number Addition, Subtraction, Multiplication, and Division
Math Facts That Stick. My Math Facts That Stick books make learning the math facts fun with hands-on lessons, games, and workbook pages. If your child only needs to fill in some math fact gaps, they’re an easy-to-use and simple way to get the math facts mastered.
RightStart Math’s Activities for the AL Abacus. If you want to start from scratch and work through all of elementary arithmetic as quickly as possible, this is my go-to resource. Click here for my full review and explanation of this program.
Math Mammoth Blue Series. These inexpensive, downloadable worktexts combine instruction and practice problems. They’re perfect for when you hit a topic where your child needs teaching to understand the concept, not just practice problems. Math Mammoth offers them for just about any topic from first-grade math through pre-algebra. Click her for my review of Math Mammoth’s full program, the Light Blue series.
Kumon books. Kumon books are a cheap and easy way to practice one specific skill at a time. They’re well-sequenced and thorough, with lots of practice problems. But, Kumon books only provide practice, not instruction, so they’re usually not enough on their own.
Fractions, Decimals, and Percentages
Key to Fractions, Key to Decimals, and Key to Percents. Each Key to… series consists of a set of thin workbooks that cover a particular topic from start to finish. They’re incremental, well-sequenced, and visual, with lots of pictures and practice exercises that help kids both understand the underlying mathematical concepts and also master the pencil-and-paper skills.
Math-U-See Epsilon (Fractions) and Zeta (Decimals and Percentages). These are each a full-year curriculum with hands-on manipulatives to help kids make sense of fractions, decimals, and percentages. However, older children are often able to move through the lessons at a quicker pace. Click here for my full review of Math-U-See.
P.S. I can’t say enough good things about Kara’s new book. It’s like getting a pep talk, solid advice from an experienced homeschool mom, and a big hug, all in one. What I appreciate most about it is Kara’s honesty, and that she’s not trying to put a shiny, perfect façade on her homeschooling. Instead, she’s completely real about the challenges–and about the hard-won wisdom she’s learned along the way.
Got a question for me? I’d love to hear from you! Click here to submit your own question.
Disclosure: Some of the links in this post are affiliate links. If you go through them to make a purchase, I will earn a small percentage of that purchase as a commission, without any increased cost to you. I only recommend products because of their quality and not because of any commission. The decision is yours, and whether or not you decide to buy something is completely up to you.