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This article was published 8/9/2015 (1602 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.
As a new school year begins this week, many parents wonder how they can help their child with math.
High school and higher-level math concepts rely on skills that can be traced back to middle and elementary school. Success in algebra — the bridge to higher-level math — depends on strong fraction skills, which depends on strong arithmetic skills, which in turn depends on fluency with times tables and basic number facts.
This cumulative nature of math is often underestimated and by the time a child reaches middle school or high school, the number of unmastered concepts can swell, making it difficult to learn new concepts. It's important to address the skills a student is missing. But it is much easier to help a Grade 4 student to memorize times tables, than a Grade 8 student who must also learn more difficult concepts at the same time.
At home, parents can help lay the foundation for success in later math. Elementary school children should have times tables memorized and should be able to add, subtract, multiply and divide both small and large numbers with ease using traditional vertical methods.
Beyond basic arithmetic, a child with a good grasp on fractions has a greater chance of success in high school math. This is covered late in the Manitoba curriculum — Grades 7 and 8 — but it's important to pay close attention to whether your child can add, subtract, multiply and divide fractions and to address weaknesses. Some useful resources that parents can use at home to reinforce these skills include JUMP Math and the free worksheets from www.math-drills.com.
When learning times tables, children generally start out by skip counting or using number lines, but they must move beyond time-consuming strategies to memorization. The reason for this is simple: a person's working memory can only hold about seven items at a time, like a phone number. A child who hasn't memorized times tables will find their working memory overwhelmed when he or she is trying to learn more difficult concepts, since the brain must search for strategies to determine number facts. This exhausts the working memory needed for learning the new concept. The two-second rule is a good rule of thumb: children should be able to give the answer to any basic multiplication fact in less than two seconds.
Parents often ask me to suggest techniques to help their child memorize times tables. As with any math concept, the main strategy must be practice. A consistent five to 10 minutes per day devoted to times tables can pay huge dividends.
I usually suggest starting with the two-, three-, four- and five-times tables since it's fairly easy to teach kids to skip count by twos, threes, fours and fives. Moving from skip counting to memorization can be accomplished through flash cards, drill sheets, playing a times-table war game, apps such as My Math or by making up jingles to remember a specific number fact.
Next, work on memorizing the nine-times table since it has a nice pattern that allows children to check their answer quickly: the sum of the digits in the answer is always nine and the first digit in the answer is always one less than the number you're multiplying by. For example, nine times seven is 63 (think: 7-1=6 and 6+3=9).
Finally, work on the remaining tables — six, seven, eight, 11 and 12 — and remind children they already know many of these facts from having memorized the previous tables. When kids can't remember a number fact, encourage them to think of a way to determine the answer (such as using another known fact like four times five to reach four times six), but continue practicing until strategies are no longer needed. I like to use "beat your time" speed tests, where children are encouraged to try to improve on previous times for writing out answers to specific tables until the two-second rule is satisfied.
Memorizing times tables requires hard work and perseverance, but the reward is that this frees up working memory, making it easier to learn new math concepts. Children are usually very proud once they have times tables memorized and their success teaches them that goals can be accomplished through hard work and practice.
Ultimately, the responsibility for ensuring children have a strong foundation in math lies with the province, which sets the math curriculum and educational policies.
However, parents can look out for their own by ensuring they are fluent with basic math concepts such as times tables, basic number arithmetic and fractions.
Anna Stokke is a math professor at the University of Winnipeg who co-founded the advocacy group WISE Math and the non-profit organization Archimedes Math Schools.
Updated on Tuesday, September 8, 2015 at 11:01 AM CDT: Adds image, adds missing = sign.