Home Math Tips: Books and workbooks

Do you recognise these painful wails?

  • From children: “Mom! Dad! I just don’t get math! It’s boring! The teacher doesn’t explain it right! Why do I need to do this? What do algebra and trigonometry have to do with real life? These word problems are so stupid! Why do I have to memorise these dumb times tables? Why can’t I just use a calculator?”
  • And from parents: “What’s with this ‘new math’ anyway? It seems like math changes every year or two! It doesn’t look like anything I ever studied in school! How am I supposed to help my child with math when it’s changed so much? Why can’t we do it the good old-fashioned way? I was never good at math myself! Help! What should I do?”

What should you do indeed? Ask the teacher (if your child attends school) to provide extra individual help for your child before or after school, at recess or lunch? (If the teacher even has time–and your child is willing to cooperate?) Hire a tutor (A good idea, if you can arrange times that work for your family and you can afford)? Find a community group that offers free or low-cost “homework help” sessions outside school time? Or….

Aha! What about those handy-dandy workbooks at the local bookstore? Or maybe borrow textbooks from the school? Or how about trying out those fun, alternative math books someone was raving about at the homeschool support group or on Facebook? Well, what about them? Here are some suggestions to help you make up your mind about how to use math books and workbooks to help solve the “math problem”:

  • It’s true! There are lots of books with fun, alternative approaches to math. They’ve been created to make math accessible and even entertaining for folks–children and adults both–who struggle with math or just find it boring. And these books include lots of different approaches since we all learn in somewhat different ways. So the trick is to find books that suit your child’s (and your) learning styles and needs. Therefore, you might want to borrow a variety of such books (from the library or from friends) and try them out. Then, when you’ve found some that really works for you, consider purchasing those titles. Some examples:
    •  Scholastic Explains Math Homework – specifically written to explain to parents the math being done in the school classroom, and tips on how they can help their child with the related homework.
    • Childcraft Mathmagic – Introduces the history of math, how math is used in real life, amazing mathematical ideas, and hands-on fun math projects.
    • Dr. Seuss’s One Fish, Two Fish, Red Fish, Blue Fish and similar fun-to-read books that prepare the child to expect to enjoy math and introduce it as a real part of life. Help your child develop a pro-math attitude while still at an early pre-school age.
    • Whodunit Math Puzzles; Tricks Riddles Games Amazing Math; Math Magic; Calculator Riddles – Titles like these not only make math “fun,” but they also appeal to kids with particular personal interests, such as a love of puzzles, tricks, calculator use, and even, yes, magic! While these titles don’t usually “teach basic math concepts,” they can change your child’s attitude toward math, and that can make a positive difference in learning those math basics.
    • Math For Smarty Pants – Books like this are aimed particularly for children who find the basics of math easy and boring. These titles encourage kids to explore math more deeply and challenge themselves in mathematical ways.
    • Textbooks – If you just want a standard “textbook” type approach, there are many to choose from. But be aware: first of all, textbooks tend to be expensive. So you’ll want to try them out first (many textbook companies offer “sample downloads” which you can print out from their website and try out with your child–or borrow a copy from someone or see if you can get an inexpensive used copy). Also, most textbooks take a particular approach. For example, the Saxon textbooks take a “spiral” approach, gradually introducing new concepts step-by-small-step, while constantly reviewing the concepts learned previously, and every lesson offers lots of practice exercises. They are text-heavy, with few illustrations. And they really do work well–for some kids. In our family, they were wonderful for two of our children, but a real struggle for the other three. Other textbooks are very colourful and tend to be hands-on, project-based, which some children love, especially those who enjoy exploring and figuring things out themselves by “doing.” These books often expect you will have a good supply of commercially-produced “math manipulatives” on hand for the children to do the hands-on activities. Still other textbooks are designed for classroom use and have a lot of “group” activities, so that kind might not be suited for your individual child’s use.  And some textbooks are actually “teacher books” and you’ll discover that you’ll be expected to also purchase a series of workbooks for the child to use. While textbooks can be helpful, really check them out first and be sure that the one(s) you choose will be worth the investment.
  • When you are deciding what kind of book might work for your child, here are some questions to ask yourself:
    • Will this book suit my child’s learning style(s) and personal interests?
    • Will this book line up with my child’s math learning at school? (If your child attends school or works with a tutor, it is a wise idea to discuss with the teacher or tutor what topics and methods will be used there, so you can provide support for those learning experiences, while also introducing other more individualised approaches for your child)
    • What are my child’s needs? For example, does my child need to learn math basics and/or particular concepts, or does my child have negative attitudes to math that a fun approach would change, or is my child bored with simple basics and needs a challenge?
    • How much can I afford to invest? Will this book be only for one child in the family, or is it a book the younger children will be able to use in their turn? Can I find access to a group where I can sell or swap it with other parents (many online homeschool groups, such as on Facebook, have excellent shop-and-swap groups)? Could I borrow the book from the school or library or friends?
    • Will I be helping my child work through the book, or does my child prefer to work independently? If I will be helping, how much time can I devote? Does the book’s approach fit with that? Do I even understand the approach of this particular book, or should I try to find another book that works better? Or should I hire a tutor–or perhaps take a couple tutoring lessons myself before trying to help my child?
    • Is this book “hands-on” or “academic”? Does it provide lots of practice questions and examples? Will I need to purchase extras like workbooks or math manipulatives (or create my own manipulatives)? Will these aspects work for us?
    • Where should I shop for these kinds of books? Is there a local bookstore with a knowledgeable staff? What about an education supplies outlet in your area? Online–and if so, should I check out a general bookstore like Amazon, or go to the websites of particular publishers, or check out homeschool sites or other educational sites? What about asking advice of other homeschoolers or parents of other school children? Should I borrow from the library or school or other people first, and then make a buying decision? What about second-hand bookstores or thrift shops? All these different options have pros and cons. I highly recommend comparing prices and checking out your alternatives before purchasing; reading reviews (and make sure those reviews aren’t ones written by the company selling the book 🙂 ); asking advice of people who’ve already gone down this same path and have experience and wisdom (and perhaps have used copies you can borrow or purchase from them); and if you’re working alongside a teacher or tutor, ask for their input, too.
  • And what about workbooks? There are so many workbook alternatives out there, it can be overwhelming to think about which (if any) would be useful. In addition to the questions we’ve discussed about purchasing books, here are some specific considerations regarding workbooks:
    • What is your purpose for a workbook? Is it to actually teach your child concepts, and then provide practice? Or is it just for extra practice beyond regular homework assignments or what your child is doing in their math class in school? Or maybe just for fun because your child likes doing workbook exercises? Which workbook would work best for your purposes?
    • Is the workbook grade specific (for example, is it for grade 1 or grade 8 or whatever), or is it topic specific (perhaps it focuses on basic math facts–addition, subtraction, multiplication, division–or perhaps it focuses on fractions or algebra or geometry)? Which would be most helpful? If your child only has problems with one aspect of math, you might want a topic-focused workbook, for example.
    • Has the workbook been designed for a particular country or province or state? Will a workbook with American coins and bills, and word problems that relate to American places and situations, be helpful to your child in another country? How closely does the curriculum in the workbook relate to the school your child attends?
    • How much does the workbook cost? Is that investment worth what the workbook contains? Can you photocopy the pages your child needs, and then be able to reuse the book with your next child? Or perhaps have your child write answers in a notebook so you can use the workbook with other children in your family? How about checking out “wipe-off” workbooks?
    • Maybe your child has underlying math issues such as perceptual difficulties? There are workbooks (and books) for things like that, too … and sometimes dealing with those issues first before dealing directly with math is a good idea. Also, sometimes children like “fun” math-related workbooks, which provide a positive attitude boost–consider colour by number workbooks, dot-to-dot notebooks, math game workbooks, and maze workbooks, for example.
  • What about books that help parents help their children with math? Those can be very helpful too! In fact, I have developed a series of great little booklets, ranging in price from free to just a couple dollars, at my Teachers Pay Teachers site. You’ll find super-helpful and practical tips on topics like math facts (addition, subtraction, multiplication, division, memorization tips and learning strategies, and arithmetic tips and tricks–as well as lots of useful booklets for language arts.

What advice and tips do you have about math books and workbooks? What are your favourites? Are there any you don’t like, and why? Do share your thoughts in the comments, please. Thank you!

More “Home Math Tips” posts:
Games and family fun
Charts and tables
Books and workbooks
Online sites
Tips for kinesthetic learners
Unit studies

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