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Math Crutches

Q: My second-grade son insists on using a number line or hundred chart to do his math. He relies on it so much I feel like it may be a crutch. I never had much use for these items in school. (I found my fingers and scratch paper to be much more convenient.) I don't want to make him stop using it if that is just his way of learning, but since I never really used them, I don't know if they are just a useful learning tool or a hindrance to his actually learning to do "mental math". He started out in an online public school. That is where the charts were introduced to him. I would like your opinion on this and if the charts are bad, some ideas on how to get him weaned off of them. You always have such good ideas and I can't really find anything online about whether they are good or bad. Thanks, Katherine

A: Hi Katherine! When I was in school, everything came pretty easy for me and I never felt the need for aids like multiplication charts, number lines, etc. I just assumed that everyone else was like me. I feel really bad looking back on one of my students when Tom and I ran a Christian school. This little second grader used his fingers when working math problems and I made him stop because I didn’t think he should use a crutch. I feel bad now because, of course, we all have our strengths and weaknesses and I took away this little guys method of compensation.

With my own kids, I’ve let them use charts if they feel like they need it. (Not all of them do.) What I’ve noticed with the ones that use them is that the day comes when the chart slows them down and they naturally stop using it. It’s kind of like training wheels on a bike. In the beginning, they’re very useful for helping them get moving and giving them confidence when they otherwise would struggle. However, once the skill of riding develops, the training wheels are an annoyance that they gladly shed. The same happens in Math. Once they learn their facts and methods well (which happens as a side-effect of constantly consulting the chart) they naturally stop looking at the chart because it slows them down. For some it happens early, for others it takes several years. I imagine the same thing happens when working a cash register at a lunch counter. At first, the cashier probably has to consult the price list constantly to ring up a sale, but eventually it’s all automatic – no chart needed.

It helps to casually mention sometimes that you notice how fast he is getting and how you know he’s getting good enough that the chart is going to become obsolete. Make it a thing of, “Won’t it be great when you’re working so fast that you don’t need that anymore?!” If you notice him do a problem without it, say, “Look at that; you didn’t even have to look at your number line for that one!” Try not to make a big deal out of it, though. If you talk about it too much it might make him cling to it more. Sincerely, Andrea

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