Making Sense of Arithmetic

Making-SenseHomeschoolers have an advantage in teaching math: As our students grow, our own understanding of math grows with them because we see how the ideas build on each other.

This is especially true for those of us with large families. We pass through the progression of concepts with each student, and every pass lays down another layer in our own minds.

If you’d like to short-cut that process, check out Graham Fletcher’s Making Sense of Elementary Math video series. He’ll walk you through the topics, showing how manipulatives help build early concepts and gradually give way to abstract calculations.

“Understanding the vertical progression of mathematics is really important in the conceptual development of everyone’s understanding. This whole Making Sense Series has truly forced me to be a better teacher.”

— Graham Fletcher

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FAQ: Trouble Finding the Right Math Program

“I can’t find a home school math program my son likes. We’ve tried Singapore Math, Right Start, Saxon, and Math Mammoth. We subscribed to a month of IXL Math to keep him in practice, but he hates that, too. I know I shouldn’t have changed so many times, but this was our first year of homeschooling, and I was trying to please him. But I’m running out of things to try. Do you think Life of Fred might work?”


You’ve tried all those math programs in one year? Many people recommend that new homeschoolers take a few months off to “detox” from the classroom setting, to relax and enjoy the freedom of making their own choices. But your son might want a few months to detox from his homeschool experience.

I suggest you set aside all those books and focus on games and informal math. Try to avoid schoolish lessons until your son starts to enjoy learning for its own sake. The Internet offers an abundance of creative math ideas.

  • For example, download the Wuzzit Trouble or DragonBox apps to play with, but don’t make it a homework assignment.
  • Or let him choose one of the activities at Gordon Hamilton’s Math Pickle website and explore it for a day or a week or as long as it remains interesting.
  • Browse through the Primary Level 1 or Level 2 puzzles and games at the Nrich Mathematics website for more ideas.

Look for more playful math on my blog’s resource pages:

Explore Big Concepts: Infinity

Math that captures a child’s imagination can make the more tedious work seem bearable. For instance, in the 1920s, mathematician David Hilbert created a story about an imaginary grand hotel with an infinite number of rooms.

Explore Big Concepts: Fractals

Sierpinski-tortillasTake a mental trip to infinity by playing with fractals. Cynthia Lanius’s online Fractals Unit for Elementary and Middle School Students offers a child-friendly starting point.

Fractals are self-similar, which means that subsections of the object look like smaller versions of the whole thing.

Most children enjoy exploring the concept of infinity with hands-on fractal patterns, such as this Sierpinski triangle made of tortilla chips. Talk about what you notice and wonder: How does the triangle grow? How many chips will we need for the next stage?

The Daily Four

If you worry that your son needs to keep practicing traditional arithmetic during his break, try making him a series of Daily Four pages:

  • Fold a sheet of plain paper in half both ways, making four quarter sections.
  • Write one math problem in each part. Choose them from any of your math books.
  • Make sure each problem is different — one addition, one fractions, one multiplication, or whatever — and that none of them are hard enough to cause frustration.
  • Don’t worry about an answer sheet. Show him how to use a calculator to check his work.

You can make up a whole week’s worth of these problem sheets at once, with a balanced mix of problems for each day. Your son won’t feel overwhelmed, but you’ll know he’s reviewing his number skills.

Or download some of the Corbettmaths 5-a-Day practice sheets for him. Some problems may seem too easy while others require concepts he hasn’t studied yet. Easy review won’t hurt anything, but do let him skip the problems that feel too hard.


Credits: “Rock Surfer Boy” by Ken Bosma and “Boy” by Isengardt via Flickr. (CC BY 2.0) Hotel Infinity video by Tova Brown.

Click for details about Let's Play Math bookThis post is an excerpt from my book Let’s Play Math: How Families Can Learn Math Together—and Enjoy It, as are many of the articles in my Let’s Play Math FAQ series.

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FAQ: He Won’t Stop Finger-Counting

“My oldest son has somehow developed the horrid habit of counting on his fingers. We worked on the math facts all summer. He knows the answers in simple form, such as 9 + 4, but if it’s in a bigger problem like 249 + 54, he counts up to add or counts down to subtract, all using fingers. My younger children have no problem with mental math, but he can’t seem to get it. Are there any tips or tricks to stop this?”

New Crutches

Counting on fingers is not a horrid habit, it is a crutch. Please think for a moment about the purpose of crutches. The blasted things are an uncomfortable nuisance, but there are times when you can’t get anywhere without them. And if you need them, it does you no good for a friend to insist you should crawl along on your own.

That is how your son feels right now about his fingers. He is struggling with something his younger siblings find easy, and he can tell that you are frustrated. His confidence is broken, in a cast, and needs time for healing. So he falls back on what he knows he can do, counting up the answer.

Think positive: this means he still believes that math ought to make sense — that to understand what he is doing is more important than to guess at an answer. You want him to value sense-making, because otherwise he will try to memorize his way through middle school and high school math. That is the road to disaster.

“Schools spend a lot of time working with young children to get these facts memorized, but many children aren’t ready for that task yet. They’ll count on their fingers, and may be reprimanded for it.
“What happens when a person becomes embarrassed about counting on their fingers? If they still want to think, they’ll hide it. That’s the better option. The worse option that way too many students choose? They start guessing. When math becomes too incomprehensible, or not living up to someone else’s expectations becomes too painful, many students give up on math, and then they just guess.
“We count on our fingers as part of a thinking process. Perhaps the thing I want to figure can be memorized. But if I haven’t memorized it yet myself, the most efficient way to figure it will likely involve fingers.

—Sue VanHattum

The Problem of Transfer

What you describe is called the problem of transfer, and it is one of the huge, unsolved problems of education.

We can train someone to do a simple, limited task such as answering flash cards. But how do we get that knowledge to sink in, to become part of the mind, so they can use it in all sorts of different situations?

No one has figured that out.

There is no easy solution. It requires patience, and providing a variety of experiences, and patience, and pointing out connections, and asking the student to think of connections, and lots more patience.

Some Things to Try

It might help to do fewer math problems in a day, so you can take time to work more deeply on each one. Talk together about the different ways you might solve it. Make it a challenge: “Can we think of three different ways to do it?”

In math, there is never just one way to get a solution. Thinking about alternatives will help your son develop that transfer of skills.

Or pick up some workbooks that target mental math methods. The Mental Math workbook series by Jack Hope and Barbara and Robert Reys will help him master the techniques your younger kids learned without effort. It may still take him longer to do a calculation than what you are used to with the other children, but these books will give him a boost in recognizing the types of mental tools he can use.

Here are a few of my previous blog posts that include mental math tips:

Or perhaps encourage him to keep using his fingers, but to switch to a more efficient system, such as Chisenbop. According to math education expert Jo Boaler, research shows that finger-counting supports mathematical understanding.

Mental Math: A Battle Worth Fighting

Jumping into mental math is hard for an older child who wasn’t taught that way. I believe it’s a battle worth fighting, because those mental math techniques build understanding of the fundamental properties of numbers.

But the main goal is for him to recognize his options and build flexibility, not to do each calculation as fast as possible.

And be sure he no longer needs those crutches before you try to take them away.


Photo credits: “Stryde Walking To School on his New Crutches” by Jim Larrison and “Silhouette of a boy” by TimOve via Flickr. (CC BY 2.0)

Click for details about Let's Play Math bookThis post is an excerpt from my book Let’s Play Math: How Families Can Learn Math Together—and Enjoy It, as are many of the articles in my Let’s Play Math FAQ series.

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Dreams for our Children

Don’t you love this quotation?

For our children, we dream that mathematics…

… makes sense
… is more than just arithmetic
… is joyous
… makes them strong
… is meaningful
… is creative
… is full of fascinating questions
… opens up many paths to solutions
… is friendly
… solves big problems and makes the world better
… is a powerful tool they can master
… is beautiful
… lets them learn in their own ways
… is connected to their lives
… asks “why” and not just “how”
… opens the world

Avoid Hard WorkFrom the upcoming new book Avoid Hard Work by James Tanton and the Natural Math team.

Join the crowdfunding campaign and reserve your copy today!

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New Book: Avoid Hard Work

I’ve loved James Tanton’s How to Be a Math Genius videos for years. He offers great problem-solving tips like:

  • Visualize: think of a picture.
  • Use common sense to avoid grungy work.
  • Engage in intellectual play.
  • Think relationally: understanding trumps memorization.
  • Be clear on what you don’t know — and comfortable enough to admit it.

Seriously, those are wonderful videos. If you haven’t seen them before, go check them out. Be sure to come back, though, because I’ve just heard some great news.

Natural Problem-Solving Skills

Avoid Hard WorkTanton has joined up with the team of Maria Droujkova, Yelena McManaman, and Ever Salazar to put together a book for parents, teachers, math circle leaders, and anyone else who works with children ages 3–10.

It’s called Avoid Hard Work, and it takes a playful look at ten powerful problem-solving techniques.

Join the Crowdfunding Campaign

For more details about Avoid Hard Work, including a 7-page pdf sample with tips and puzzles to enjoy, check out the crowdfunding page at Natural Math:

Read the questions and answers. Try the activities with your children. And donate to support playful math education!

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Playing with Math Shapes

Playing-with-shapesI love it when a plan — or rather, a series of math thoughts — comes together.

On Monday, Emily Grosvenor (author of the Tessalation! picture book) asked me how parents who are insecure in math could help their children learn through play, and I responded with this quote from my Let’s Play Math book:

If you are intimidated by numbers, you can look for patterns of shape and color. Pay attention to how they grow. Talk about what your children notice.

But I wasn’t entirely satisfied with that answer. So many adults have come away from their own school experience thinking math is only numbers. Even with shapes, isn’t it the numbers about them — how many sides, what size of angles, calculate the the area or perimeter — that are important? That’s what school math tends to focus on.

Those of us who are comfortable with math know that there are many more things to notice and think about than just numbers. We know that it’s this noticing, thinking, and wondering that is at the heart of math. And that just playing with shapes can build a powerful foundation for future math learning.

And then yesterday, Malke Rosenfeld posted a beautiful article about a paper manipulative created by Paula Krieg. Which included this video:

The ability to create, and maintain, and manipulate shapes mentally — that’s the goal. Just like kids who can put numbers together in their heads, kids who can rotate, flip, and think of how shapes fit together in their heads have a powerful tool to analyze not only simple shape puzzles, but dividing up an area that’s a more complex room shape … to look at a piece of artwork … or look at a building … For these kids, all the world around becomes a playground to use mathematical ideas.

— Doug Clements
Problem Solving Development: Composing Shapes

Of course, pattern blocks are good for much more than just filling in worksheet pictures. But I love this peek into how a child’s understanding grows, in bits and spurts — without any numbers at all — until the world itself becomes a playground for mathematical ideas.

Want more?

You know what? Children like mathematics. Children see the world mathematically … When we do a puzzle, when we count things, when we see who’s got more, or who’s taller … Play and mathematics are not on opposite sides of the stage.

— Doug Clements
Why Early Childhood is the Right Time to Start Learning Math

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Math Teachers at Play #97 Blog Carnival

Did you know 97 is an emirp?
Did you know 97 is an emirp? It’s prime both forward and backward! What other emirps can you find?

Welcome to the 97th edition of the Math Teachers At Play math education blog carnival: a monthly smorgasbord of links to bloggers all around the internet who have great ideas for learning, teaching, and playing around with math from preschool to pre-college.

A few articles were submitted by their authors, but most were drawn from the immense backlog in my rss reader. If you’d like to see your blog post featured next month, be sure to send it in yourself. Our hosts are busy parents and teachers who have limited time to scour the Internet for goodies.

To add a bit of color, I’ve thrown in several favorites from my newly updated Math with Living Books pages. Some (affiliate) links go to, where you can read descriptions and reviews — but there’s no need to buy. Most of these books should be available through your local library.

Table of Contents

If you’d like to skip directly to your area of interest, click here:

Please: If you enjoy the carnival, would you consider volunteering to host sometime this year? Classroom teachers, homeschoolers, unschoolers, or anyone who likes to play around with math (even if the only person you “teach” is yourself) — if you would like to take a turn, please speak up!

And now, let the mathematical fun begin!

Pinczes-A Remainder of One

When the queen of her bugs demands that her army march in even lines, Private Joe divides the marchers into more and more lines so that he will not be left out of the parade.

Talking Math with Kids

  • Crystal Wagner (@Tri_Learning) shares several Math Games to Play in the Car: “Or maybe you are waiting in line at the grocery store or doctor’s appointment. Turn these times of waiting into learning opportunities.”
  • Christopher Danielson (@Trianglemancsd) shows how The sequence machine can launch math conversations with older students: “Now you can generate number sequences, without being distracted by the multiplication facts.”


Help inspire your kids to try writing their own unique problems. Includes a wide range of math topics and concepts: money and time, fractions, percentages, geometry, logic, and multi-step problem solving.

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