If you have an elementary student who is talented in math (or just simply loves it), figuring out how to supplement their math education can be tricky. You may sense that they need more than what school is providing, but not know where to begin. With remedial students it’s usually clear which skills need to be shored up or which gaps in conceptual thinking need to be bridged. However, for a student who is great at math and is under-challenged in school, the answer is less obvious. Doing more of the same is rarely the answer. Math-talented students don’t need more work, they need different work; work that really stretches their brain, but not so tough that it’s discouraging.
Acceleration is usually the first option considered, and it can be part of the solution, but its not always the perfect choice. Frankly, most math programs don’t actually get much harder as they go along. They introduce new topics and procedures but rarely delve into the kind of multi-step problem solving or open ended questions that will really develop math ability.
Also getting too far ahead in the school curriculum can be a real concern for some parents. This isn’t a problem if you’re a homeschooler, have a very flexible school that will work with your child’s acceleration, or are willing to continue supplementing at home until high school, but otherwise there can be consequences to working too far ahead and having a child bored in the classroom.
Fortunately it doesn’t have to be an either/or decision. There are many topics in mathematics that are both broader and deeper than basic arithmetic and that go way beyond the standard pre-algebra-to-calculus pipeline. I’ll be talking more about this in future posts. However, my first recommendation for any student, of any age, is to improve their problem solving skills.
An easy way to get started is with the Singapore Challenging Word Problems (CWP) series. A great first step is to simply buy the CWP book that is at a level appropriate for your child, tear out a page, grab a magnet, and put it on the fridge. Make this “The Problem of the Day.” Do it before school or after school or whatever time of day is best for your family. Perfectionism among gifted students is common, so I believe it’s important to keep it fun and not get caught up in whether your child gets it right or wrong. Doing math outside of school should not be a chore, but about learning to love problem solving.
There are other great problem solving books out there, but this is the one that I’m most familiar with. The problems in CWP have incredible depth and are extremely well written. The best thing about this is that you’re hitting a lot of different skills in one time-efficient package. You get multi-step problem solving, a gentle introduction to algebraic thinking, and basic arithmetic practice on a variety of topics. My only caveat is that CWP, as the name says, is challenging, especially if you haven’t had experience with Singapore math, so I often recommend buying a grade level down to build confidence and patience.
The reason I like the “problem a day” approach is that it fits in with my two basic educational principles. The first basic principle is that starting small is the best way to begin. There are a few people who can radically overhaul their lives in a small amount of time, but its rare. For most parents, finding the time and energy to squeeze in some math enrichment between sports and music and homework and dinner and bedtime is tough. Starting small means you will actually do it.
This leads into my second basic principle, which is that a little bit every day is better than a lot all at once. With daily work you have higher retention and the extra minutes quickly add up. I know the idea of starting with 10 minutes a day of extra math sounds like the too-good-to-be-true ab workout on the cover of a fitness magazine in a supermarket checkout. However, that extra problem a day can painlessly lead to an extra hour of math per week, and if you keep it up all year round you’re potentially talking about the equivalent of two full grade levels in the course of an elementary education.
So if you’re not sure where to start with your math-talented student start simple with a daily word problem.