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Helping Children to Love Mathematics

10 May 2012

Mathematics in primary school

In the primary school Mathematics syllabus, pupils learn concepts such as measuring and ordering.

Deciphering sales advertisements in the newspapers, dipping into a stack of playing cards and examining an MRT map for travel distances and fares - these common scenarios were just some of the examples highlighted by Ms Teh Wan, the vice-principal of Townsville Primary School, as opportunities for parents to help their children use basic mathematics concepts in everyday life. A Head of Department for Mathematics for 15 years before she became a vice-principal in December 2011, Ms Teh was sharing these handy tips at a seminar for parents of pre-schoolers, organised by MOE and the Singapore Indian Development Association (SINDA) on 7 April 2012.

Ms Teh is a strong believer that parental involvement can boost a child's confidence and encourage the child in his or her learning. Her talk, "How to nurture your child's love for mathematics", was tailored for parents with children in K1 and K2, who were anticipating their child's admission into primary school. Although she explained the requirements of the MOE syllabus for Mathematics [PDF] for Pri 1 and 2, she did not refer to any textbooks or assessment books, focusing instead on practical, everyday activities that would be suitable for children in this age group.

Ms Teh's advice stemmed from one core idea: "The child is our main focus; it is important that we plan activities with the child in mind." And the more fun parents and teachers bring to mathematics, the more likely it is that children will develop confidence as their understanding of the different concepts improves.

Ms Teh offered five key approaches to growing a child's love for mathematics:

  • Increase the child's curiosity
  • Involve the child in daily activities
  • Let the child ask and answer questions
  • Give the child the opportunity to think
  • Collaborate with the child's school

Practising mathematics actively

Mathematics in primary school

Children can play games involving numbers to practise concepts like addition and subtraction in a more casual environment.

While adults may take for granted that they use mathematical concepts involving money, measurements, shapes and patterns in routine tasks, Ms Teh advised parents to make these concepts more visible in their child's environment. This would help to stimulate the child's curiosity. For example, using examples from the book Shape Search, by Jill Bever and Sheilah Currie, Ms Teh showed how the shapes of household objects could be used to help children identify shapes more readily.

Indeed, daily life contains a wealth of opportunities for children to apply mathematics concepts and get involved in family life. From the kitchen to the child's room, from the car to the supermarket, Ms Teh highlighted that all sorts of activities such as cooking from a recipe, sorting toys, tearing off the tabs of parking coupons and reading price labels can help to strengthen a child's understanding of measurement, time, money and fractions. Through these activities, children will see how such concepts are being used in the real world all the time.

Ms Teh also noted the importance of being systematic in developing a child's interest in mathematics. For example, parents could make it a point always to count from left to right (or right to left), to minimise confusion. In counting, they could emphasise the last counting word. "Do this by emphasising the last number you say: 'One, two, three, four. There are four sweets.' This helps your child to see that the last counting word you say tells you how many things there were."

Mathematics in primary school

Colourful blocks and other toys or props can be used to prompt counting habits.

Examining the world, mathematically

But children should not only be prodded to react to the numbers and shapes around them. Ms Teh advocates letting the child ask and answer his or her own questions. This could be done by letting the child compare if there is "more" or "less" of an object. For example, at the supermarket, the child could be asked whether there were more water melons than papayas on display, then the parent can guide the child to count and answer the question.

In the same vein, parents can deepen their child's engagement with mathematics by giving them the opportunity to think independently. Looking at a sales advertisement in the newspaper together, parents can ask their child to apply their addition or subtraction skills to work out the savings for each item and figure out which item offers the most savings. With a deck of playing cards, parents can play variations of a game like Snap to test their child's understanding of numbers. Traditionally, players call out "Snap!" when identical cards are turned up, but parents could tweak the rules so that "Snap!" applies when a card with a bigger or smaller value appears.

Mathematics in primary school

The more children develop confidence about mathematics through fun and games, the more comfortable they will feel as they learn more complex concepts.

Finally, Ms Teh reminded parents of the importance of collaborating with their child's school, in order to reinforce at home what the child has been learning and practising during mathematics lessons. While learning about the formal mathematics syllabus and keeping up with the child's individual progress is useful, Ms Teh also suggested that parents participate in school-based workshops on how to teach different topics to their children at home. Parents can also volunteer their services for school programmes, so that they can witness their child's learning for themselves.

Ms Teh concluded her talk by using some examples from the book A Pattern Walk, by Sue Evans, to show how everyday scenarios such as taking a walk in the neighbourhood could provide opportunities for parents to get their children to identify patterns in numbers, shapes and colours - such as by looking at building numbers or the clothes worn by passers-by. Although these may seem like mundane examples, Ms Teh reminded parents that it is precisely for this reason that there is so much potential for teaching and learning for every family. "I believe that the learning of mathematics should always be made meaningful and fun," she declared, "and that every child can learn and every parent can help to make learning fun."