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7 Basics for Teaching Arithmetic Today
By Marilyn Burns
- Grades: PreK–K, 1–2, 3–5
- Arithmetic skills are necessary life tools that children must learn.
As adults, we use arithmetic daily. We add, subtract, multiply, or divide when we balance our check-books, calculate tips in restaurants, figure out how much wallpaper to buy, finance a car, keep score for games, and so on. A person who can't do arithmetic is handicapped in many situations.
Classroom strategies: To help children appreciate the importance of arithmetic, ask them to interview their families about when they use arithmetic. The question they should ask is: When do you have to add, subtract, multiply, or divide to find out something you need to know? Record what children report on a class chart. (For older children, sort the information into two groups: "at work" and "at home.") Afterward, discuss how the chart shows that arithmetic has many useful purposes.
- Arithmetic should prepare children for real world math.
Most of the daily situations that require arithmetic call for more than merely counting. For example, we need to problem-solve in order to decide on the numbers to use or which operation to choose.
Classroom strategies: Involve children in solving problems that relate to classroom routines, such as:
- When taking attendance, count children present, then ask the class to figure out how many are absent.
- Ask children, when lining up, to predict whether everyone will have a partner.
- When collecting milk money, involve students in making change and figuring out how much everyone spends on milk.
- Involve older students in figuring out how much classroom supplies cost, such as a year's supply of paper.
- For class parties, have the students figure out how much refreshments will cost.
- Learning to compute mentally is an essential skill.
We do many of our daily arithmetic calculations mentally, such as when we keep track of what we put in the supermarket cart so we don't go over the $20 we have, when we divide a check at a restaurant, or when we double a recipe that calls for 3/4 of a cup of broth. Usually we don't reach for paper and pencil, but figure in our heads.
Classroom strategies: Ask children to do mental math on a regular basis. Call it "hands-on-the-table" math and ask children not to reach for paper or pencil, but to reason in their heads. Try this:
- For younger students: Have two children take a handful of beans or tiles and count how many they have. Ask the class to figure out how many they have together. To verify, count the objects. Or ask each student to put two cubes in a jar and then have the class figure the total number of cubes in the jar. To verify, count the cubes by 2s, 5s, and 10s. (Not all young children know that you'll get the same result no matter how you count.)
- For older students: Scoop beans into a jar using a coffee scoop and have the students count how many scoops it takes to fill the jar. Then give pairs of students a scoop of beans to count, discuss with the class what might be the average number of beans in a scoop, and then have students calculate mentally how many beans are in the jar.