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Math Anxiety – Is Math Teaching in Conflict with Math Learning? The Second Article of Three
What is it about mathematics that causes such pain and anxiety, turmoil and fighting, tears and anger? Is it the math or is it the method we use to teach math to our children? Personally, I don’t think it’s math. People have been learning math for hundreds of years. Mathematical anxiety is a recent phenomenon, as in the last 50 years. We are in the second generation of math anxiety. So let’s look at the method we use to teach math. I have found that the standard approach to teaching math today is equivalent to teaching reading by first studying grammar, spelling, and phonics before reading a story. If we did this to teach reading, no one would ever want to learn to read. So why do we teach math this way? Why is our approach to mathematics rigid and artificial? I do not know! Our schools preach that there is only one way to learn mathematics. This is his way, which is also the last and the greatest New Math. The new math, of course, is just the latest approach to teaching math. Mathematics is as old as the mountains and is the same as it was in the beginning. They say “This is the best way for all students to learn math.” It is not true. In real life, children learn in a variety of ways. In real life, children learn at different rates. Solving problems with numbers can be and should be approached from the child’s learning preference. If they can be flexible in teaching reading, why can’t they be flexible in teaching math?
Is it being flexible in how we teach practical mathematics? Most teachers, especially in the elementary grades, do not have time for multiple approaches and multiple skill levels. Many teachers do not have the competence in mathematics for many approaches because it is not necessary to teach elementary school. Some also have anxiety about teaching math. We are given an instruction manual and an answer sheet and told to teach. Many teachers don’t even have the vision to see the value in wrong answers. Instead the answers are marked wrong without any investigation for that. This is a missed opportunity! Wrong answers can lead to a deeper understanding of the material. Wrong answers are an opportunity to analyze the child’s thought processes. Instead, teachers give lots and lots of worksheets, thinking that the more students do, the more they will learn. No wonder our children are either bored or confused. Is it our teachers’ fault? No! We blame our school system.
I’m not saying that all elementary school teachers are bad at math. Some are proficient in math, but not all. I have great respect for teachers. However, how many teachers does it take more than eight years to give a child the impression that he is not good at math? How many encounters does it take over eight years, 180 days a year? I can tell you from personal experience; it only takes a teacher in a moment to put this notion into a child’s head. At this moment, the teacher was not even aware of the damage he did. Belief is a powerful thing. Negative belief is more powerful than positive belief. For my son, it was a fourth grade fractions test where he got most of the answers wrong. Except they weren’t actually wrong. He did the fraction calculations correctly. He just forgot to simplify the fraction. No one told him. She thought she had done the fraction calculation wrong. In an instant, his confidence in mathematics was shaken.
At the extremes, I’ve seen kids bored to death in math while others struggle to understand. Why do schools make everyone repeat the same lesson when only a few have not yet understood it? You can be sure that those who do not understand the concept will feel pressured to learn. They begin to believe that they will never have it. Doing worksheet after worksheet doesn’t help them. And the other children are tired of doing sheet after sheet. Give everyone a break. Let children who understand the concept move on to the next concept. I once asked my son’s teacher to challenge him in math. This was a big mistake. All my son has been is a bigger pile of worksheets. No wonder our kids hate math in both extremes.
Mathematics is a process of discovery. I see learning math as a series of “Aha” moments. You struggle, struggle, struggle, then suddenly you get it and wonder why you didn’t see it before. Then practice the new skill, just enough to know you have it. So go ahead. Work at your own pace with a math approach that works best for you. It is the ideal way to learn mathematics. This is how math should be taught. Also, children need to be given something real to practice their math skills, a real-life situation that involves the use of math. This should not be so difficult to do. After all, math is practical. It’s all around us. Play a game of Scrabble® and discover the math involved in winning. Don’t let math work or tests get set aside without analyzing the wrong answers. Approach wrong answers from a discovery point of view, not “let’s correct your wrong thinking”. You’ll be amazed at what you discover about your child if you let your child show you how he had those wrong answers. Have fun with math. The math is basic. Everyone can do Math!
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