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SEBRING - A class of elementary students quickly sort small, colored plastic tiles on their desks into an arrangement that will help them visualize a math problem. “I want you to layout two-thirds on your desk and then we are going to compare it to one-fourth right below it,” Fred Wild Elementary third-grade teacher Stephanie Davis instructed her students. The different sized tiles — such as the green one-fifth tile and the slightly smaller orange one-sixth tile — along with cross multiplication exercises on the whiteboard, are helping Davis’ students learn fractions. A new study stresses the importance of an early start in math, showing that students who are behind in first grade will continue to struggle and won’t catch up.
One in five adults in the United States are functionally innumerate; they do not possess the mathematical competencies needed for many modern jobs, according to the study by mathematics researchers David C. Geary, Mary K. Hoard, Lara Nugent and Drew H. Bailey. The study showed that children scoring in the bottom quartile on the numeracy test in seventh-grade started school behind their peers in number system knowledge and showed less rapid growth from first to second grade, but typical growth thereafter. School Board of Highlands County math specialist Pat Willard said kindergarten and first grade are basic fundamental classes for mathematical standards. Students are developing the basic understanding of math at these grade levels so by the time they leave first grade, if they are behind either from an inadequate background from home or a daycare, then they really don’t catch up because they haven’t had the ability to build those foundational skills, she said. “So they are always playing catch up from then on and we see that every day,” Willard said. What can parents do to get their preschoolers started in math? At home, parents should introduce their babies and toddlers to numbers and counting and shapes and talk to your child about math just in a general context, she said. Help the child understand “more than and less than and equal to,” she said. When they are pouring a glass of milk they can use that as a teaching tool at home. Pour one glass fuller than the other and ask the child “which one has more.” A program on her iPad is built to the preschool level and her 3-year-old granddaughter will sit and play the game on there for two straight hours, Willard said. It’s a learning game with shapes and sizes and putting things together and counting and recognizing numbers and colors. Her granddaughter can pick and choose the games she wants to play and they are all interactive, she said. It draws her into it and it’s amazing the progress she has made at 3 years old since playing this game. So it’s just, “making life of a learning lesson,” Willard said. Davis said parents can help their children by going over homework and graded papers. They can apply math skills to daily life such as cooking (measurement), telling time and grocery shopping, she said. The key to success in math is that teachers and parents reinforce skills being taught each day. Manipulatives must be used in math to help students understand abstract skills such as fractions, Davis added. Davis began her teaching career at Fred Wild in 1980. “I have seen many changes in math instruction,” she said.  Students in the ’80s performed more rote memory of math facts, answered word problems, etc.   Today’s third-graders are challenged with much higher expectations in mathematics, Davis said. Students must develop understandings of multiplication and division strategies for basic multiplication facts and related division facts, she said. They must understand fractions and fraction equivalence; describe and analyze properties of two-dimensional shapes; understand patterns, geometry, measurement and number operations; and perform data analysis. The evolution of math instruction is continuing with the implementation of the common core standards. Most states, including Florida, are adopting standards to provide a consistent, clear understanding of what students are expected to learn, so teachers and parents know what they need to do to help them. Willard said the common core standards will give students the freedom to solve problems the way their brains work. It’s going to allow teachers to assist students more and be able to watch them and see how they are learning, she said. There will be more discussion and communication that will build a much deeper understanding starting at the kindergarten level. As the district moves into common core mathematics and reading, the school system will be informing parents of what is coming and what they can expect when children bring their homework home because it is going to look different than it has in the past, Willard said. The common core standards were implemented two years ago in kindergarten and this year in first-grade. Next year second grade will be fully implemented with everyone else doing a blended curriculum, Willard said. Also, Willard made a point against students using calculators in the early grades. Many times parents and teachers believe using calculators is using technology and parents have a tendency to let their children use calculators at home when they are doing their homework, she said. “Our brains are the greatest calculators and when students at younger ages depend on those calculators to do the math for them they lose the ability to be able to do it themselves, which causes them great struggles later on,” Willard said. In the younger grades calculators should not be allowed at all, she said. Even in algebra, there are very few instances where they would need a calculator. If students use them as a tool and not a crutch for specific things, they are very beneficial. When calculators become the crutch for students to be able to do the math, not only are they missing the understanding, but also they are slowing their brains down and won’t be able to do this on their own, Willard said.