Stretching math through the summer (part 2)


Whether its warm days spent at the lake, roasting s’mores on a family campout, or long afternoons spent reading in the backyard, summer is a great time for relaxing and decompressing from the rigors of the school year. A break from routine and a chance to get outdoors is good for everyone’s mental health, and children are no exception. For many families, however, summer also causes stress. Aside from issues of childcare and keeping kids occupied during the summer, a three month break from academics can be way too long for some students. All skills are subject to a “use it or lose it” deterioration, but math skills are the most perishable.  A small amount of regular math practice over the summer can mean big gains in the fall, in terms of less review and less frustration.

However, there’s no need to ruin the family vacation with pages of boring worksheets. Parents should be partners in student learning, not taskmasters or adversaries. Math practice at home, particularly in the summer, should be fun and engaging. Last week I covered Art of Problem Solving’s Beast Academy, my favorite program for high-flying elementary students. This week, I’ll talk about two more excellent books: Primary Challenge Math and Real-World Algebra, both by Edward Zaccaro. These books are ideal for students who have a good grasp of basic concepts, and want a little more challenge, but aren’t necessarily ahead.  I recommend Zaccaro’s books for summer math because they are substantive with a focus on problem solving, but they don’t feel like workbooks. With cartoon illustrations and plenty of white space, the pages are inviting rather than intimidating.

Primary Challenge Math is a great starting point for elementary students in grades 1-4. Each chapter covers a particular type of problem with cute headings like “How much does it cost?” (money) or “Oh no! I have to change the recipe” (fractions) and includes 4 different levels of problems from novice to “Einstein.”  This format makes it very adaptable for different ages and abilities. In first grade my son worked to Einstein level in a few chapters, but for topics we hadn’t covered yet in our regular math program like decimals and percent, he only attempted the novice level problems, saving the rest for later.




Real World Algebra is very similar to Primary Challenge Math but is geared towards students in grades 4 and up. It gives younger students a lightweight taste of algebra and older students the chance to build confidence before middle school math. What impresses me the most about Real World Algebra is the focus on using algebra as a language to structure word problems. While there is some focus on procedural steps to problem solving, most of the book is simply about setting up problems correctly by translating the words into equations. As you know, word problems are my favorite because they really build and test the student’s mathematical understanding. Along those lines this book makes algebra seem like an easy way to solve word problems rather than an intimidating conceptual leap.

You can purchase Primary Challenge Math, Real World Algebra, and other books by Edward Zaccaro, from Amazon or other retailers.

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