The Easiest Subject

Math has a gigantic advantage over every other subject. Whereas English, Science, and History are by nature interpretive and interactive, Math is exact and precise. Whereas other subjects are constantly evolving, Math does not change. Every year new words are added to the dictionary, but no matter what happens we can be confident that 1+1 will always equal 2. Considering this, it is ironic that so many students view math as foreign and incomprehensible. Unlike other subjects, the “cheat notes” for math are visible for all the world to see, yet many math students don’t know where to begin. The student either has a faint remembrance of something he or she might have heard at school, or the student has NO IDEA and would rather completely skip the problem altogether. All this trouble for the one subject that has a clear set of instructions built into it!

To understand our method for teaching math, think about when you first learned something you now consider simple, like tying your shoes. At first you had maybe a faint idea how to tie your shoes from watching your parents do it (“I just take these two pieces and shove ‘em together REAL tight”), but then one day your parents actually sat down with you and showed you the correct method: “Over, under, in and out, that’s what shoe-tying’s all about.” Once you learned that rhyme you now understood the complete steps in the shoe-tying process. From there, you experimented on your own using the rhyming steps as a guide. After several practices, you were able to tie your shoes with only a minor mess-up or two. With more practices, you could tie your shoes tightly and quickly. After still more practices, you developed your own style and process, improving on the basic way your parents originally taught. This is the way you learned everything in your life, from brushing your teeth to building that chair you bought at IKEA, and so there’s no reason we can’t apply the same principles to learning math.

Our strategy for math tutoring is simply to get the student to follow the darn instructions! First, we work with the student to break down a given math lesson into a series of easy-to-follow steps. The student will have these steps on a sheet of paper and will be encouraged to use them at all times to complete the problem (oftentimes, the student already has the steps either as notes or in a book but doesn’t even know it). We then do something seemingly crazy – we give the student the answers! Just like tying your shoes or baking a pie, you have to see the end result you’re working to achieve. By having the steps and knowing the final answer, the student is able to practice the math without constant help and will be able to self-determine whether he or she is doing it right. And just like when you first learned to tie your shoes, the student practices the math over and over, sometimes getting it right and sometimes getting it wrong, until those higher levels of understanding begin to take over. That’s it; there’s no mystery to math, it’s just about getting the right instructions and then practicing until the process becomes second nature.

Reading Below Grade Level

Most parents with a child struggling in reading have heard or read some version of the following phrase: “your child is reading below grade level.” This phrase sounds so sinister, and seems like such a horrible pronouncement on the child’s chances that the parents give each other sad glances and contemplate how to pick up the pieces and move on. As a teacher and tutor, I’ve sometimes found it amusing how many people end up using this phrase as a license plate for a student (“he reads at a third grade level”), to the point where they start to sound like judges at a figure skating event (“I give his word attack a 3rd grade level, but his comprehension is a 5th grade level, and his fluency I only give a 2nd grade level”). The truth is that this “grade level” metric is as arbitrary as any other, and should be treated as (at best) a rough guide, and not the permanent tattoo that it often becomes.

Reading is a series of building blocks stacked on top of each other. The bottom blocks are the ABC’s, then the sounds they make stacked on top of that, then the blending of those sounds on top of that, then the common patterns made by those sounds, then the uncommon patterns, then the concepts generated from those patterns, and on and on it goes until you have a gigantic tower stacked high with all these little parts supporting each other. Some blocks may be missing, and the tower can still stand without them, but the higher you go the more the flaws in the structure reveal themselves. By high school, you find that you either have an Empire State Building or a Leaning Tower of Pisa.

So, our reading method is simply to identify the missing blocks and fill them in. In most cases, reading struggles go back to basic phonetic and sight word unfamiliarity. The student may know most of his vowel blends (such as “ou” as in “found”) and so will read most words with minimal difficulty. However, if the student struggles with a particular vowel combination (such as “io” as in “action”) then the student will then struggle to read a word with that sound. And if the student struggles to read that word, then the student will struggle to read the sentence as a whole, which will affect the general flow of the reading, which makes those figure skating judges give you bad scores on things like “comprehension” and “fluency.” To s0lve this, we repeatedly drill the most common vowel and consonant combinations, and then drill the 500 or so most common sight words in the English language.

For all the other stuff, like comprehension and main idea, our focus is on creating a meta-dialogue about the text as we read. So, if we are reading an article, the tutor might start by looking at the title and asking a question about it (“hmmm, ‘US Lawmakers Conflicted on Cutting Aide to Egypt’– wow, what’s up with Egypt right now? I heard there’s a lot of riots and stuff…”). This questioning continues as new information appears in the text (“so is this Morsi guy president of Egypt now or did he used to be? What do you think happened to him?”), and all the while the student learns how to interact with the text instead of just viewing it as a grouping of random letter combinations. This meta-dialogue is something that we all do in our heads as we read or watch a movie or whatever, we just don’t think about it. After the student practices reading in this interactive way, it will become a natural habit.