What does mental maths mean to you?

Do you ever think back to your school days and the maths you did? Did you do much mental maths or was it more copying sums from text books? I find it fascinating talking to people about what they did when they were at school, everyone seems to have done completely different things.

Looking back over official curriculum, mental maths played an important role in maths lessons in the UK in the 1990's but, as the thinking has changed, so mental maths seems to have developed a less significant role within lessons. Throughout my experience mental maths is often the key to helping a child become comfortable within a mathematics lesson.

Most lessons start the same with the teacher standing at the front, teaching a certain aspect of maths to the class. Within each class there is always a group whose mathematical brains are fast enough to follow the teaching and do the examples along with the teacher in their heads and be first up with their hands and the answers. There is always the group that does not put their hands up. These are sometimes children that are happy to sit and watch but can do all the maths work in their heads. However, there will always be a few children in the class that are not putting their hands up because they can not keep up with the mental work of the numbers that are being used. They are so busy trying to follow the numbers that they are unable to follow the new concept that is being taught. This then builds the maths into something that they feel they can not get their heads around and it becomes something to be afraid of.

If a child is happy and confident to 'play' with numbers then generally they are much happier and more confident within lessons and therefore more able to understand and follow what is happening and open to learning new ideas and concepts.

This doesn't just happen at the beginning of lessons, it's often within the activity part of the lesson too. Children are given a task and asked to complete it and some children find they missed the beginning of the lesson because they were flummoxed by the numbers and now can't follow through. If they did manage to follow the start of the lesson there are some children that still find the work difficult to follow as they are having to constantly interrupt the work they are doing to sort out the numbers. For example: when doing some multiplication with 2-digit numbers some children are having to stop half way through the sum to painstakingly work out the simple multiplications. (this is a rather extreme example to illustrate my point, hopefully nothing this extreme should be going on in any classroom!)

As a teacher I have seen this happen to many students and have spent a lot of my teaching years trying to undo this and teach children to enjoy their maths lessons.

Along with teaching whole classes I have tutored many students. When tutoring a student for the first time my main focus for the first few weeks would always be mental maths. I found this was a good way to have fun, it immediately boosted the childs' confidence and with this improved ability I found the student was then able to understand many more concepts and move their maths knowledge and understanding forward.

So, to those of you needing help in how to work with your child to improve their mathematical knowledge and  / or understanding start by working on their mental maths with them. This also has the added bonus that it's relatively easy and fun to do and probably one of the more achievable areas of maths for a parent helping a child.

For those of you that would like to challenge your children and extend their mathematics capabilities I would say a very clear starting point is to really push their mental maths skills, the more these are pushed, the more they understand so the further they can take their maths knowledge and skills.

For those of you that are just here because your children can do some maths and enjoy it then again work on those mental maths skills, they can only make them better, happier mathematicians.

Over the next few entries I am going to detail some mental maths activities that can be used to help your child, whatever their level of maths. The key is to start at a really easy and basic level. This will build your childs confidence and make it easier for them to do as the numbers get harder. Starting easy is often the key to helping a child. As a parent, I understand, this can be really hard to do. In your mind you want your child to be as good as possible and you don't want to admit, even just to yourself that they can't do something that you feel all the other children can do. Please don't worry about this, your child is your child and special whether they can do something or not. As a parent it is our job to help them and the best way to do this is to start easy. and slowly build up. You will be amazed at how quickly they can make progress if you give them the chance with the easy numbers.

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