The Math Gap

Are you afraid of math? Many adults are. About 1 in 5 American adults are characterized as “innumerate” – they can’t do basic arithmetic problems such as adding fractions, working with measurements, and doing whole number arithmetic problems, according to a study about how math skills develop. The standard for innumeracy is not high; Geary refers to adults who cannot compute a 10% tip. This is trivially easy: slide the decimal point one place to the left. 10% of a $22.50 bill is $2.25. The total would be $24.75.

Consider a simple task: add 18 to 7.

A naive child will count to 18, then count 7 more, giving 25 – if the child does not lose track.

A more capable child will separate the 7 into 2 and 5, add 2 to 18 (20), add 5, result 25.

This method of regrouping is the “secret” behind formal addition – add 2, carry 1, keep 5.

Many children, unfortunately, do not learn the informal idea of grouping until first grade. They find it bewildering.

Suppose you know nothing about math. Why should 2+2=4? Why not 22? An apple plus an apple, symbolically, is two apples. You don’t transform the apples into a pear, banana, or car.

Symbolic arithmetic makes sense after one learns concrete arithmetic, not before.

Louis Benezet proposed to stop teaching formal arithmetic for the first five years. His students did very well, compared to peers.

The 30 million word research found that it is very important for parents to talk to and with their infant children.

I suggest that comparable research would probably find a “math gap” between children whose parents talk about counting, grouping, and other concepts, versus children whose parents do not.

I am not suggesting flash cards and “number facts” and drills. Just talk about everyday numbers as they arise. Compute, verbally, in simple terms – Four apples, four people, one apple for each of us. Two apples, four people, slice each apple in half, one half for each of us. Play dice games; count the pips on the die; add the two counts; all sorts of small, simple, easily-expressed ideas can help your child grasp math as language, before starting kindergarten.

It is my estimation that such early math literacy will help a lot of children avoid innumeracy. As with words, I expect “early and often” to be good advice. But as I advised here, have fun! Do not replicate the anxiety of schools!

Schools as we know them, with their assembly line approach, are not very good at detecting and fixing such gaps. This is perhaps best done by those who know the child most intimately.


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