A+ Advice for Parents

Q: My fourth-grade daughter is less successful in math than other subjects. I'd like to help, but the Common Core approach is different than mine. She needs to nail her times tables. Will I confuse her if I work with her?

A: It's useful for children to learn that there's more than one way to understand a math problem, says Marilyn Burns, one of the nation's top math educators. "If your daughter ever seems confused about your approach, confer with the teacher."

One important way to help with math homework is to ensure it's complete, writes Dr. Jason Zimba in a post on edexcellence.net. Zimba, a lead writer of the Common Core State Standards for Mathematics, encourages parents to look over homework. If you spot an error, ask your daughter to do the problem again. If everything is correct, select a problem and ask her to explain how she got the answer. If a question is left blank, pull up a chair to talk about it.

He advises parents to take a common-sense approach, asking a child to "tell me what you know so far about this problem." After that, Zimba writes, "If it's a word problem, we might act it out; if it's a computation, we might warm up with a simpler version of the problem."

When it comes to times tables, Common Core standards expect students "to know their sums and products from memory and to be fluent with the standard algorithm for each of the four basic operations," says Zimba. "These expectations are unlikely to be met without extensive practice."

In the Zimba household, math practice is part of "Saturday School," a routine that he calls "weekly exercise for the whole family's brain." Zimba uses flash cards, digital apps such as Math Drills and games he creates. Find those on his blog jzimba.blogspot.com.

There's not enough time in class to nail math facts, agrees Nancy Bourne, the STEM coordinator for the Palm Beach County (Florida) School District. "Parents are essential in providing the practice kids need to achieve 'automaticity' -- the ability to retrieve times tables automatically, so when solving problems kids don't have to stop and figure out, 'Now, what is 7 times 6 again?'"

She has a few tips for parents:

-- Remind kids of helpful patterns and rules such as when multiplying by five, the product will always end in five or zero; or the commutative property rule, stating that no matter the order, you still get the same answer.

-- Make the goal fast retrieval. "Even with all the tricks, most kids still have to practice a lot to be speedy," says Bourne. "Websites such as multiplication.com, sumdog.com and apps such as Brownie Points can help. Don't drill until boredom, though. Five minutes a night goes a long way to enshrining these in the brain forever."

-- Point out the math in daily life. "Doubling a recipe?" Bourne says. "Ask your daughter to do it. Have her estimate the total cost of items in your shopping cart before checking out."

Just remember this important advice from math educator Burns: "Children do best when teachers and parents are partners. This doesn't happen enough with math."

(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.)

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