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I recently read an ad that referenced how much information children lose academically during the summer. With one math program, if the child were to continue daily small lessons without the three month break, they could skip to lesson 40 of the next level book. The first 39 lessons were essentially re-teaching what they had learned the previous year and forgot over the summer. This is typical of most math books.

One year when I was teaching sixth grade at a private religious school, during the winter months, two young men from Korea joined our classroom. They were not of our religion, but it was their winter break, and their parents wanted them to continue their education. Also, the emersion in an English speaking classroom was desired.

Continual learning is one key to improving (and not losing) math skills. Another key is to learn from the Asians. It is common knowledge that children from Asian homes perform significantly better in math. There are various factors, such as parental encouragement and the priority they place on their children’s education (as in the example above), but there are other factors. Malcolm Gladwell, in his book, Outliers addresses the difficulties the English language creates.

He points out that in English, after the number ten, the teens each have a unique name and each tenth following that gets their own name. Have you ever considered what “eleven” has to do with “ten” and “one”? Or twelve with two? (Other than both twelve and two start with the “t” sound.) And despite that thirteen and fifteen are similar to three and five (plus) ten, it is still a new word. In English a child must learn 28 unique words to count up to 100.

Compare that to any Chinese dialect, Japanese, or Korean, where he only needs to learn 11 distinct words– one through ten and one hundred. In Asian languages like Chinese, numbers after ten follow a precise logic. Eleven in Mandarin is shi yi or ten-one, twelve is ten-two, thirteen is ten-three, and so forth. The pattern continues; fifty-nine, is five-ten-nine. Five tens and a nine, 59.

While reading about this, I experienced de ja vu. I was back in an auditorium while Dr. Joan A. Cotter explained her RightStart math program. It was the program used by the school where I was preparing to teach. She had studied for years, including travels to Asia to find differences in how they taught math. One key was the language for counting.
Another was their ancient use of an abacus. With the development of her own abacus, she taught students to learn addition, subtraction, multiplication, and division using a visual tool. (Her fractions pyramid is brillant.) With a background in Montessori, much of her math is hands on.

I am always dismayed each time I see a child adding by counting on their fingers. That is not addition; that is counting. A child by kindergarten can “see” five. Perhaps it comes from having five fingers. (An infant recognizes three items and when one is missing or returned.) By using her abacus, Dr. Cotter capitalized on this inherent skill to teach addition without counting on fingers. Students who use her program internalize math and score significantly higher on achievement tests.

Taking a summer off is like two steps forward, one step back. Have you ever actually tried to cross a room that way? Why do we expect our children to progress through their most important years of learning with that rhythm? This summer, learn from the Asians. Consider what you can do to keep your child’s math skills active and improving. Have short lessons daily, consider investing in a math book, or play math games.

BTW, just for fun, here’s a flash back to my childhood and why I didn’t learn math between Saturday morning cartoons.