Picture the scene, you’re helping your child with maths homework and you come across a calculation which you have worked out in your head in seconds, or even worse, a younger sibling has blurted out the answer. However, your child is still sitting there, crunching up their face, trying to think hard about the answer. Maybe your child thinks that the answer should appear by magic in their head? So you wait, and encourage and try not to rush your child as that is when the panic sets in. You’re putting pressure on your child to hurry up, when clearly there’s nothing to hurry up about because that answer is not materialising. In the end your child guesses the answer.
As a teacher I have seen this many times. The child doesn’t actually have the skills and strategies to work out the answer. So they try to think if they have done something like this before and then remember that answer. It doesn’t work of course, as maths is all about application of skills to new situations. Once you teach the methods, the child should be able to use them in any situation.
So this article will try to address the problems that are caused by poor mental maths. How can you help? Does it really matter in this high tech world where we have calculators on our mobile phones?
Children who are weak in maths will also struggle with mental arithmetic. They work things out too slowly, often get the answer wrong and fail to retain important number facts. Weak mental maths skills means that a child will make silly mistakes in their calculations and will struggle to finish the work set. In older children, they rely on the calculator and when you ask them to work it out on paper, they have forgotten how to. So practicing mental maths will help your child in all areas of maths and boost their grades.
Encourage your child to work things out in their head. One of my students was doing the question “7+3”. I know that he can put a number in his head and count on, but when I saw him working it out, he counted 7 fingers, then counted 3 fingers and then added them up. This took him twice as long as it should have. If you want to know more about the “counting on” method, which is used in schools, Topnotchteaching explains it really well.
He was doing this because he lacked confidence and counting out the numbers gave him a sense of security, it was buying him time to get the answer right. Children don’t like mental maths because they have a greater chance of making mistakes, and have nothing to “fall back on”. The only way of getting over this is form a habit of working things out in their head.
Don’t expect a child to learn number facts for the sake of learning them. Times tables, number bonds and knowing the number of grams in a kilogram are all examples of this. These can be learnt, or even crammed for tests, and just as easily forgotten. Maths is like a language. Unless it is used regularly and in different contexts, it will not be remembered. For example, times tables need to be learnt and then used in word problems, applied to fractions, used in division questions and used in everyday life. We use maths in our daily routines, more than we realise. Find the maths in your child’s life and help them realise that maths isn’t just something to be used in the classroom, it is all around us.
Here are some simple strategies to help strengthen mental arithmetic.
The most important skill is to learn times tables. This article gives you some practical ways to teach times tables.
Practice mental maths as a daily routine.
Have a set of questions saved on your phone or your computer or even printed out and fire these at your child. Make it look like a game so that it’s not too overwhelming.
The Superkids maths Worksheet generator creates some maths questions for you plus an option to print the answers as well. So you can create your own customised worksheets specific for your child.
If you don’t want to make your own worksheets, this website has ready-made worksheets, just print them out and have a go.
Maths Pyramids are another great way to practice addition as it isn’t as straightforward as adding two numbers.
This app called Gurgle Numbers is one of my favourites for making maths fun.
Performance in exams and tests is another area where practice makes perfect. If your child is in year 6, then you can download mental maths test papers from Emaths.com.
And finally Cool Maths Games has hundreds of games to help your child practice maths.