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Category Archives: Operations and Algebraic Thinking

Math Talks – Episode One

Math Talks – Episode One

For the first episode of Math Talks I used my daughter, Lilly, as my student.  She tends to be my educational guinea pig for many, many things.  Lilly is entering first grade but thinking about numbers more like a second grader.

Here is a breakdown of the discussion:

The talk begins with a dot pattern image flash.  This is an activity that helps kids to subitize (recognize quantities without counting).  I started with this activity for two reasons.  First, as a warm up and a way to get going.  More importantly, I did it to reinforce the question I posed later.  I wanted her to think about the ways to make 7 so my dots were different patterns of 7 (six and one, three and four, five and two).  Later I was going to ask her to try to think about 7 as a group of two and five more so I knew this activity would get her thinking in this way.

Math Talks 1 Dot Image 2Math Talks Dot Image 3Math Talks 1 Dot Image 1

When I explain the activity to Lilly, she immediately asks how fast I’ll flash the dot cards.  You might notice my misspeak as I tell her that it won’t be so fast that she can’t see them and then I meant to say, “. . . but not slow enough that you can count them.”  It is important that kids understand the idea isn’t to count the dots.  They idea is to either immediately know the quantity (sets up to five) or to visualize the picture of known quantities and combine them (i.e. see two and two and two and one and that’s six and one more and that’s seven).

An important part of this section of our math talk is the follow up questions I asked.  By asking her how she saw the dots and how many, it confirms and cements the idea that the total can be thought of as two parts combined.

Math Talks 1 Question

As we get into the meat of the talk, I made sure to write my math story in a context that was interesting.  Lilly’s show of choice this summer was Wild Kratts so I used that as a hook to get her interested and engaged.  The question I posed was an add to, change unknown problem.  That’s teacher speak for an addition word problem in which one of the addends (the quantity you are asked to add to the first quantity) is unknown but you know the first addend and the total.  This problem is trickier than when you known both addends because you have to count up or add up to the total and attend to how many it took to get there.  This is a problem first graders should have skill with by the end of the year.

What you see in the video is a visual of her thinking process while solving.  I used the Show Me app to record her steps and did so after our discussion.  It’s important to note that what you see is an exact match of what she wrote on her paper.  After our talk, I spoke with Lilly about what she saw in her head when she was solving problems like this.  She shared that she is thinking in numbers rather than in pictures.  While that is good, and where she should ultimately be thinking, it is important that she have the ability to work with a picture model as well.  In future talks, I’ll work on modeling her thinking with a picture and relate it to the number models with which she is comfortable.

We wrapped our talk with a discussion about challenge.  This summer I’ve spent a lot of time learning about growth mindset.  I really want to instill in my child, and others for that matter, the importance of attempting challenge, using mistakes as opportunities to learn and the value of effort.  I’m doing that by emphasizing those qualities in the praise and feedback I give.

Here is the podcast and the youtube video is below.  Enjoy!

For more Math Talks, visit the Math Talks page on the menu bar.


The Language of Multiplication

Multiplication (2 groups of 3)Recently, my kindergartener, Lilly,  came home and declared, “I’m bad at times.”  Let me clarify a couple of things.  First, when she said that, she didn’t mean that she was occasionally evil.  She meant she was bad at multiplication.  Second, we don’t do, “I’m bad at ___.” in our house.  We work pretty hard to send the message that we’re all capable of most things if we only apply ourselves.  Lilly knows this, but as the youngest kid in her class, and likely her entire grade district-wide, she’s constantly comparing herself to classmates who are much older and wiser.  She’ll tell you all day long, “You just have to practice, practice, practice.”  And at times, she actually believes this.  Over spring break she was determined to skip a bar on the monkey bars and by jove, she did it.  Other times, she needs some convincing.

So your first thought at a kindergartener declaring her deficiency in multiplication might be, “Why are they doing multiplication in kindergarten?”  I assure you, they’re not (at least not formally).  This statement came from a classmate, whose older brother just went through third grade.  Third grade is the year students are supposed to know from memory (and by the end of the year) the product of all single digit numbers.  Needless to say, her classmate spent a year listening to his brother complete math homework and picked up a little – perhaps a lot – here and there.

My first thought was, “You’re not bad at times.  You’re using the wrong language.”  Most of us learned our multiplication facts from drill and practice.  We learned tricks to remember the nines and were always stumbling over the sevens and eights.  No one bothered to explain the meaning behind multiplication until after we’d memorized our facts.  Turns out, if we do the reverse, understand before we practice, memorization comes a whole lot faster.  And better.  Part of understanding is knowing what “times” means.  I sat my daughter down and explained that “times” just meant “groups of”.  We practiced this way:

Me: “2 times 3 just means 2 groups of 3.”Multiplication (4 groups of 2)

Lilly: “Oh, I know that!  That’s just 3+3.  It’s 6!”

Me: “Let’s try another one.  4 times 2.”

Lilly: “4 times 2 . . . so that’s four groups of 2.  So 2, 4, 6, 8!”

When multiplication language is understood, especially the language of operations, competency and fluency increases.  Learning multiplication requires an understanding of the language (times, factor, product, etc.) and an ability to think flexibly about numbers.  Most kids are comfortable multiplying by 1, 2, 5, and 10.  That’s because they all have had practice skip counting in these number patterns.  If they’ve had good instruction, they understand that counting by 2s is just adding 2 each time.  This connects to student understanding of multiplication as repeated addition.  The other facts anchor around knowing these facts and are based on students being able to decompose (break) numbers into parts.  There are classroom appropriate posters that are useful for parents to use as references for helping their children at home too.

Practice with multiplication strategies and work with word problems allows third graders to develop an understanding of multiplication, which in turn supports recall of “basic facts”.  Because kids have had so much practice developing a foundation of multiplication in K-2 in looking for patterns, working with repeated addition and arrays, they are able to more quickly develop fluency for multiplication.

If your little one isn’t yet learning multiplication, don’t hesitate to pose questions that support multiplicative thinking.  As I was writing this post, I took a break to put my daughter to bed.  We finished reading The Lion the Witch and the Wardrobe earlier in the day.  At bedtime, Lilly asked how many pages we’d read.  I wasn’t sure, and since I was in the middle of writing this post, I couldn’t help but respond, “I’m not sure how many pages but, if we read 4 chapters and each chapter was about 9 pages, how many pages do you think?”  She said, “So 9+9+9+9 . . .”  She understood the situation and was thinking multiplicatively.  I’m assuming, with more conversations like this, she’ll be ready to go when she gets some formal instruction in multiplication in three years!

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