The Elementary Math Update

November 2018 Edition

Hello Parents!

Welcome to the first edition of The Elementary Math Update, a math newsletter created specifically for parents of elementary students. This newsletter will shed some light on the direction of math instruction in the elementary grades.

Your child's math class experience is likely much different from your own. With memories of past math classes etched in your mind, it may be difficult to understand why math is being taught differently now. This newsletter will educate parents about changes to math instruction, and it will provide parents with simple strategies and activities to help their children with math at home.

With each new edition of The Elementary Math Update, parents should expect to:

  • Learn more about the Common Core
  • Learn simple strategies to help their children with math at home
  • Be provided with a spotlight activity to play at home

Please feel free to share this newsletter with other interested parents.

Learning More About the Common Core

An Initial Question to Consider

In what grade are children expected to add and subtract multi-digit whole numbers fluently using the standard algorithm?

What's the standard algorithm? It's the traditional way that most parents were taught to add and subtract. See the image below for some examples.

What grade are students expected to master this skill?

Big picture

Give yourself a point if you said 4th grade.

The Common Core still requires children to learn traditional methods of adding and subtracting numbers. However, children are not expected to master the traditional algorithm until 4th grade. This doesn't mean that addition and subtraction are not taught in the early elementary grades. Great attention is paid to help students develop a conceptual understanding of addition and subtraction. Parents may see this in math papers that come home. Models, manipulatives, different mental math strategies, etc. are all used to help children build a deeper understanding of addition and subtraction. Children are taught the standard algorithm once a strong foundation is established. By waiting to teach the standard algorithm, children learn the procedure correctly and understand WHY it works.

Many parents remember math as a set of procedures, formulas, etc. that were taught and practiced. Students were "good at math" if they could remember how to do all of the steps to a procedure correctly (and were fast at getting correct answers). These students were procedurally fluent -- able to use a procedure accurately and consistently. However, being procedurally fluent doesn't guarantee that students are conceptually fluent -- able to deeply understand a concept and apply it. For too many children, math often becomes a series of unrelated procedures with difficult steps to remember. Many children have no other way of solving a problem when they can't remember a procedure. The Common Core Standards are trying to prevent that from happening by emphasizing understanding instead of just emphasizing a procedure.

So the Common Core Standards do expect children to learn traditional ways of doing math. However, this only occurs after children have built up a strong foundation that will allow them to truly understand the concepts. Keep this in mind as you look over your child's math papers from school. The traditional methods are still coming --- it may just be a little later than what parents expect.

Strategies to Help Children with Math at Home

By the early elementary grades, it's important for children to be able to recite their numbers in order, going both forward and backward, from any starting number. This skill is important as students learn to count on when adding and count down when subtracting.

The practice suggestions that follow don't require a lot of time. Try one in your car at a stoplight, while you are waiting for an older child to return from a practice, or while you prepare dinner. If your child is a little weak with numbers, a sewing tape measure is a nice tool that can provide a little extra support. Start by focusing on numbers through 10 before advancing to larger numbers, eventually working your way through 100.

  • Play What number am I thinking of? with your child. Sample Parent: "I'm thinking of a number that comes right after 12. What is my number? I'm thinking of a number that comes right before 30. What's my number?" Make this a Simon Says type of activity to make it a little more fun!

  • Take turns counting down or counting forward from a given number. Sample Parent: "Let's take turns counting down from 16 during this red light. I'll go first. 16..."

  • Have your child repeat a sequence of numbers after you say them first. Practice those sequences that your child is weaker at. Sample Parent: "Repeat these numbers in order: 12, 13, 14, 15, 16." Once the child is done, do those same numbers going backwards. After the child copies the parent a few times, ask the child to count forward from 12 to 16 on their own and then 16 to 12 on their own.

  • Create a deck of numeral cards for this activity using index cards or paper ahead of time. Number the cards. Give the deck of cards to your child while dinner is cooking. Sample Parent: "From the deck, find and take out the cards for 12 through 16. Put the rest of the cards away for now. Take the cards that you took out and put them in order on the table from least to greatest. Let's read those numbers going forward. Now backwards. Here's a challenge! Only keep the first card showing...turn the other cards over so we can't read the numbers. Can you say the numbers going forward? This time, let's only keep the last card showing while turning over the remaining cards. Can you say the numbers going backwards?"

Spotlight Activity: Clear the Board

Clear the Board -- Combinations to 5

This version of Clear the Board allows kids to practice combining numbers to 5. Combining (putting together) and partitioning (breaking apart ) numbers through 5 is a skill that many students are weak at in the lower elementary grades. This is an important skill that will help children transition to more sophisticated addition and subtraction strategies and will help them work towards multiplication.

Game Directions

Play with at least 1 other player. Each player has a game board (see the materials list below) and 12 counters. Players place their counters on their board in any of the empty spaces (12 spaces will end up having counters). The youngest player rolls a single die (see the materials list below). The player has to say what number goes with the rolled number to make 5 all together. If a player has a counter for that number on his/her board, the player removes it. For instance, if a 1 is rolled, the player removes a counter from the 4 column. Play then moves on to the next player. There will be times when no counter is available to remove. When this happens, play moves on to the next player. Whoever clears his/her board first, wins.

If children need some extra support to help their thinking, they can use a blank 5-frame. Have your child fill in a blank 5-frame with coins or chips for every new number they roll. The 5-frame will help create a concrete visual that students can think about as they practice.

Clear the Board Materials

1 Possible Modification for Older Children

Create a new game board for combining numbers through 10. Roll a regular 6-sided die (or a 10-sided die). Remove a chip from the number that combines with the rolled number to make 10. Use a blank 10 frame for extra support.

The Elementary Math Update

The Elementary Math Update is created and shared by the Delta-Schoolcraft Intermediate School District.

Do you have an elementary math topic that you would like to see us discuss in a future issue? Please send us an email ( with your suggestion!

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