Educators - Math - 1st To 3rd Grade

For teachers who are unsure of their math skills, the Math Maven is here!

First let’s deal with attitude.

If you’re convinced you have no head for numbers, you are wrong. Everybody has a head for numbers. Now, we’re not talking rocket science. We’re talking basic arithmetic.

In grammar school, you are required to teach all subjects. In my imperfect survey, I ask all grammar school teachers - what is your weakest subject. 99 out of a 100 will answer math. On the face of it, this is ridiculous because you should be teaching only arithmetic in the early years (grades 1-3).

I blame the various teaching colleges for muddying the waters. They are introducing advanced mathematical notions to people who have the job of teaching only the basics. For example, the absurd notion of teaching estimating to children who have not mastered the particulars of precise measurement is ridiculous. First comes the precision of exact measurement - be it length, area or volume. The job of estimating can only be done by people with knowledge of and experience with precise measurement. Otherwise, you are promoting guessing -not educated guessing - just guessing.

If you do a bang-up job of teaching the basics: addition, subtraction, multiplication and division, your students will be ready to tackle problem-solving, set theory, advanced math concepts, estimation, etc. in grades 4,5, and 6.

I can make two unequivocal recommendations: Cuisenaire Rods and the Mad Minute.

Cuisenaire rods have been around for over 40 years. They are not manipulatives or any other new-fangled device. They are Cuisenaire rods - period. Their success has been reaffirmed over and over again. Fractions are understood in the first grade using the rods. Just imagine.

There are 3 excellent teacher guides (K-2, 3-4, 5-6 grades) . If you were properly taught their use, the caliber of arithmetic teaching would skyrocket. NO! Other devices do not compare for a multitude of reasons.

Over the past 12 years, I have discovered that many grammar school teachers have been introduced to them. But in all that time, I have only met 2 who understood them and how to use them. Given the excellent manuals available, it is time to get with it. (My son could do fractions at 6 years old because he was taught with the rods.)

I cannot say enough good things about the Mad Minute, a brilliant solution to the problem of number drill. It makes a contest between the student and the clock to nail down the 4 arithmetic functions.

Yes! There are other excellent publications to brighten up the arithmetic day.

 If the basics are taught early, math becomes a pleasure later on.  Up to the kindergarten age, children count things out. The abstract concept of integers (i.e. whole numbers like 2,3,4,5,6,7,8,9…) is the next step.  The best assistant to this transition is Cuisenaire Rods. The sooner children begin “playing” with them, the better.  Once familiarity is achieved , I recommend  Hidden Rods/Hidden Numbers. The first set of exercises does NOT involve numbers – just relationships. A neat transition to the second set of exercises which introduces the concept of the rods as representing numbers.

 In addition , the SuperSource  book for grades K-2  is recommended  for parents and teachers so that the maximum results can be obtained. If the teacher understands, then the student has a chance to grasp the principles.

 Much can be taught to a pre-schooler through observation. No books necessary. There is a wonderful thing called a Fibonacci curve (pronounced fib-oh-nachy). In the spring, if there are ferns coming up near you, observe the coiled-up fern leaf. It is the spiral called  the Fibonacci curve. If you have a nautilus shell sliced in half, that is a Fibonacci curve. So is the top of a violin. There’s more but we’ll discuss that later. 

 In this way you are teaching a comfortable familiarity with numbers – preparing the child for further adventures with numbers. 

One more recommendation. Adventures of Penrose, The Mathematical Cat by Theoni Pappas.

A marvelous addition to a teacher's day. For example, the square of 15.


The object: to arrange the numbers 1 to 9 so that they add up to 15 in every direction. This book is filled with much more, and great for grades 1-8.

We would be delighted to hear from you with suggestions, questions or comments. Our e-mail address is: We look forward to your correspondence.



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