Mistakes That Kids Make When They Do Math

17 Apr 2018

By Brandon Phu

Every Saturday morning I tutor kids in Oakland’s Chinatown. Kids from grades 1 to 11 receive homework packets and a quiz to complete. Five of us tutors help about 25 kids. In addition to tutoring, we grade the homework and quizzes. I am writing this blog to document common confusions I have observed and give strategies for how to help kids with math. Hopefully, with these strategies, other tutors will be better at helping kids learn math.

Kids have trouble with word problems. It’s pretty hard to understand information from word problems. For example, if a question uses the phrase “How much more,” we know to compare two things and probably use subtraction. But, some kids don’t know what the phrase means, so I help them draw the things that they are comparing and ask guiding questions to take the problem step by step. There are other key phrases in word problems too, but I find that teaching them how to visualize the problem by drawing pictures helps a lot. Another tricky type of word problem is converting between units, like from inches to feet. Conversion problems happen when kids do not know how to visualize length (or area or volume). With these kinds of problems, it’s good to have physical examples so they can see the difference between the units, like a ruler marked with inches and feet or a measuring cup showing ounces and milliliters.

Sometimes the children get a reasonable answer to a problem, but mess up in the process. Whether they get a right or wrong answer, I ask them to show me their work, so I can read their steps. Often they have not shown any of their work, so I make them do the problem again on scratch paper. This way I can tell if they know how to do the problem or if they just guessed. If they do not know how to start a problem, I ask a simpler version of the question. The simpler version of the question should be easy to solve to clarify any misunderstanding about the question. I want the kids to learn how to think for themselves, so they can solve problems on their own without needing to ask for help.

All of the students I tutor struggle in algebra 1. Algebra 1 is a difficult subject because it introduces new rules to math. Factoring and multiplying polynomials scare them. I’m not sure how to help them get better at it, except by making them practice more. Usually I just explain the steps to do, but they end up forgetting them. I think algebra 1 problems can be hard to visualize. They are abstract and I haven’t figured out how to use my techniques of drawing and visualizing to help them. Practice definitely helps them improve, but I am still looking for a better way to help them.

Tutoring takes time and energy, but is fulfilling. Especially when the kids do well on the quizzes and teach their friends.