We’ve had a maths breakthrough! How do I know?

- The children have been asking to do maths
*first*. - C (8) sceptically asked me in the middle of a recent lesson we were both enjoying, “is this
*really*maths, mummy?” - My confidence in my children’s ability to reach their maths potential (and my ability to get them there) has skyrocketed!

### Where we were before

When they were at school, both C (8) and J (nearly 7) enjoyed maths and were top of their respective classes. This was a good starting point, but as a new homeschooler it only increased the pressure I put on myself to nurture their talents at home! I never doubted their mathematical ability; what I did question was my ability to sustain and develop their passion for the subject.

I think my biggest enemy was that spectre that looms over most homeschoolers in our weak moments: fear of leaving gaps in our children’s education. This fear seems to strike frequently when it comes to maths, so perhaps it’s not surprising that many of us devote huge amounts of energy to finding the “perfect” maths curriculum.

But here’s what I’ve found: for my children, most maths curricula probably work just fine *for a while*. And then … well, they just get bored of doing the same thing day in day out (or at least the same sort of thing in the same sort of way). And boredom is *definitely* not a good learning state!

### The book that was the key

Then, thanks to the lovely folks over at the Secular Homeschool forum, I discovered Primary Grade Math Challenge. This is a book of word problems aimed at gifted maths students (grades 1st – 4th). Each chapter introduces a theme (such as completing a number series, or counting change) and then has four sets of questions ranging from “level 1” to “genius”.

It may not sound very exciting so far, but sitting with each of my children in turn as they work through the questions has given me is an *incredible* insight into how their minds work and what their strengths and weaknesses are, in ways no math curriculum has ever done. Meanwhile my puzzle-loving children love figuring out the answers and seeing how many levels they can complete in each unit.

Another bonus is as they work through the questions, C and J become increasingly motivated to learn more sophisticated problem-solving strategies. Instead of “Why do we have to learn this [abstract concept]?”, it’s “Please teach me a way of doing *this*!” *

*Ok, I exaggerate a *teensy *bit – we may not be *quite* there yet – but I can see the day coming. 😀

### An example

Last Thursday I had to quell my inner frustration when we opened a chapter of Primary Grade Math Challenge dealing with fractions, and C groaned “I hate fractions!” Where in the world had my mathematically gifted daughter picked up this absurd notion? Fifteen minutes later, Primary Grade Math Challenge had worked its magic on us both. C was happily adding together sixteenths, quarters and eighths, and converting improper fractions to mixed numbers. Meanwhile I had figured out that she hadn’t “hated” fractions because they were *difficult*, but because she was bored of colouring in segments of polygons and pie in her previous (grade level) maths curricula! (It makes me wonder what other misunderstandings lurk at the foundation of our homeschool!)

### What next?

Up until now I’ve continued to pick out a few sections of Math Mammoth (grade 2) for C to do once or twice a week, but writing this post has helped me let go of that, unless there’s something specific she needs to work on. She doesn’t need to practise place value or rounding to the nearest hundred, and I don’t want to bore her into “hating” any other mathematical concept. Yes, C and J need to master their number facts, know their multiplication tables and learn about different types of triangles, but they can acquire all those skills in day-to-day life (eg by baking and budgeting), by playing games, and from living maths books. One of the things I like about Math Mammoth is that you can buy material on a specific topic if you don’t need the complete curriculum. I’ve got my eye on the multiplication and division worksheets collection to help C and J master those operations when they reach that point (which given the way Primary Grade Math Challenge is going, probably isn’t far off).

### Life Of Fred

Finally, this post wouldn’t be complete without a mention of our beloved Life Of Fred. These books are not cheap but – oh – they are good! Once I had found a UK supplier (thank you Conquest Books) I splashed out on the first four elementary level books, which C whizzed through, and I’ve since bought the complete set. (I figure they’re good quality non-consumables so should I should be able to get some of my investment back by re-selling at some point – if we can ever bear to part with them!) My reluctant reader J, meanwhile, is happy to alternate reading aloud paragraphs with me for chapter after chapter – I don’t think he notices he’s even reading, let alone learning maths! Seriously, I can’t recommend these books enough if you want to your kids to associate maths with laughter and generally feeling good.

### Conclusion

I’m so happy to have found what works for us (for now!). I know this exact approach won’t work for every family or every child, but if you’re on the verge of jumping off-curriculum with your mathematically-able child – come on in, the water’s just fine!

Angie

Mar 12, 2012@ 20:22:35The Elementary Challenge Math book ~ does this tell you how to do the problems or does it just give you the questions. I want my kids to self-educate, but as you can tell by the first sentence . . . we are spoon feeders 😦

I just ordered the Life of Fred elementary series – based entirely on your post. It just seems so simple. I’m worried, but we’ll try it.

My daughter uses Saxon Math which has really helped her to understand basic math principles like addition and subtraction. But it is SOOOO SLLOOOWWWWWW. You do the same thing over and over, day after day. She loved it in the beginning, but it has been a year and she hates math!

My son uses Bob Jones University which is another good program, especially if you like the institutional math cirriculum. You know, pictures of kids having fun. Now do these 15 multiplication problems.

I guess I’m having ‘gap anxiety’. How do you merge the different programs together? Do you worry about them being on the same topic-say rounding or reducing fractions? Or do you just let the math roll as it will?

Oh, how I wish there were a book out there to tell me what to do! Oh, wait. There is. It’s called The Bible. If only God would publish a book on what math program to use . . .

Lula B

Mar 13, 2012@ 12:28:22LOL about God’s math program, Angie 😀 Let me know if you find that book!

Primary Grade Math Challenge gives a few example questions which it takes you through the answers to, then you’re on your own with the questions, although there are a few hints in speech bubbles like reminding you there are 16 oz in a pound or 2000 lb in a ton. (Which I love because in this supposedly metric country I was never taught them at school, even though we use them all the time!)

One of the things I like about PGMC is that it shows me what my children need extra help with. Eg My DS whizzes through to level 3 on some chapters but then yesterday he struggled with level 1 of “making change” – so next maths lesson we will play shops using real money (I always forget he is a hands-on learner not a book learner like me and DD!)

I think there are 2 issues here which in the past I have mistakenly collapsed. One is a desire to make sure everything’s covered, the other is that I want us to be doing some maths every day. Using a formal curriculum meets both needs in one and is certainly the easy option for me – unfortunately for my children it means boredom! Now, my emphasis has changed to ENJOYING doing maths every day – so if that means playing dice games one day, drawing fractals the next, and reading a chapter of “The Great Number Rumble” the day after that, it’s ok. In the long run, they’ll still master fractions, partly because they’ll be inspired to by their love of maths.

As for gaps, I’ve heard it said that if children did no formal maths until they’re about 11, it wouldn’t take them long to learn everything they need to go on to algebra etc. So I figure for now let’s enjoy maths, and from time to time I’ll check in on what’s covered in the formal curricula and then we’ll have a few catch-up sessions if necessary.

Angie

Mar 13, 2012@ 13:09:44Thank you. We’re about to jump off the math ciriculum wagon. I hope it has a soft landing.

You mentioned the Life of Fred books are pricey, but I just purchased the elementary set for $160 – something like 7 or 8 books. Approximately 19 chapters each. This comes out to 130 or 149 lessons. If we do one a day, it should take one year to get through them. Divided by 2 children, that’s $80 a year. Much cheaper than the other 2 ciriculums I currently use.

Even if they’re not done in a year, the little bit of the books I was able to see online seem really fun and interesting to kids. Maybe I will actually start to enjoy math and see that there is a point to it all. Oops! I meant ‘they’. Maybe they will enjoy math and see the point to it all 😉

Thank you again!!

Lula B

Mar 14, 2012@ 07:14:03I like your math! Put like that, Life of Fred IS a total bargain 🙂

Min

Mar 25, 2012@ 23:55:32Hi, just wanted to say how much I love your blog. I’ve used the Challenge Math book when I used to tutor and I’m doing Life of Fred with my daughter. So far, she loves it! Thanks for stopping by to leave me a comment. Maybe I’ll start blogging again one day.

Lula B

Mar 26, 2012@ 19:39:20Thanks so much, Min! Life of Fred is so much fun, isn’t it?