Q: Our son starts kindergarten this fall. The school sent readiness suggestions about reading, socialization and the importance of "math talk." What's that and why is it important?
A: Math talk is incorporating math concepts into everyday conversations. "Children benefit when parents verbalize and show kids the math in basic household tasks," says Antoinette Noel, a mom and math teacher in Polk County, Florida.
Noel offers an example: "Let's cut the whole pizza into eight slices. First, in half. That makes two big pieces. Now let's cut those two pieces in half. That makes four smaller pieces. If we cut each of those in half, we get eight slices -- one, two, three, four, five, six, seven, eight."
Simply being able to count to 10 on the first day of school no longer qualifies as the pinnacle of math preparedness for kindergarteners. To see why math talk is important, review math learning at each grade level at the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics website (nctm.org), or check your state's math standards at greatschools.org.
"Preschoolers can count the number of utensils, placemats and cups needed to set the table or count out juice boxes for the refrigerator," says Noel. "Talk about fractions when you are sharing -- here's half an orange for you, half for me. Have kids add ingredients while cooking to learn measurement: cups, teaspoons, tablespoons, quarts and so on."
Find non-kitchen opportunities too, says Noel. "I have my son, a budding engineer, count off sections of our tiled floor to stage his projects. That leads to a conversation about square footage. I have him measure dimensions of our carry-on suitcase before traveling to ensure it meets overhead-bin size requirements. When we painted a room, we measured walls to figure out how much paint we'd need. One of his favorite toys is a tape measure."
Once you get going, it's easy and natural to talk math, says Noel. "Don't dumb it down. Hearing the vocabulary of math is important, even if they don't understand it. Use big words such as estimation, probability, calculate, explaining as you go, but keep the dialogue moving. When you say and show, 'If you have three pennies, and you subtract one, you're left with two. That's subtraction!' you're helping build powerful vocabulary."
Keep math talk exciting, too, "because math is fun and beautiful, and kids should look forward to algebra, geometry and so on as they grow older," advises Noel. "Never infer that you didn't like math or think it's hard."
Math talk shouldn't stop after kindergarten, Noel believes. "Keep it up as your child grows in understanding."
Children need to know that math is all about trial and error, about experimenting, says Jordan Ellenberg, the author of "How Not to Be Wrong: The Power of Mathematical Thinking" (Penguin, 2014). While not a beach book, it's worth a spot on your summer reading list!
Want to brush up on your skills? Go to Khan Academy (khanacademy.org), an education website, where you can register for free.
(Do you have a question about your child's education? Email it to Leanna@aplusadvice.com. Leanna Landsmann is an education writer who began her career as a classroom teacher. She has served on education commissions, visited classrooms in 49 states to observe best practices, and founded Principal for a Day in New York City.)