Trivium Pursuit

Delaying Formal Math

I purchased your book Teaching the Trivium: Christian Homeschooling in a Classical Style about a year ago. I am only now reading sections. I am thankful for your hard work and thought — that is evident in the book. I am looking for some advice/counsel.

I’d like to start by giving you a small background, so that you can know me a little better. My husband and I have three children, ages 2, 6, and 8, and are expecting our 4th child. We began homeschooling our oldest when he was five. We started a program called Classical Conversations, which you may be familiar with. We did some Right Start Math, and a small amount of phonics and pre-reading work our first year.

Our second year, we did Spell to Write and Read and Math U See. We have been using the same curriculum our third year as well.

Now, we have reached the state where our oldest is still reading very little. We had him tested late last fall and found that he could indeed have ADHD, dyslexia, and dysgraphia. We stopped our school year at the beginning of May. I was having a rough time with my pregnancy and he was completely worn out. (I was too.) In June, we started practicing math addition and subtraction facts again. We have had a lot of resistance with him practicing math facts, which by now you might think should be coming pretty easy for him. One day we got out his unfinished Math U See book and worked on a lesson for a short time. He literally had a melt down. He is now to the point where he really dislikes “school.” He loves to learn. When I read aloud he soaks in the information. He is a great conversationalist. He loves to dialog about the Bible, current even topics, or really any subject.

I have been praying and asking the Lord to guide me as I plan and prep for our upcoming school year. I believe in my heart, that while he may have tested for ADHD, dyslexia, and dysgraphia, that he will learn, that he just perhaps may not fit the “mold” that most would use. When I read the section in your book about math, I felt particularly impressed that this may be what he needs. This is where I struggle. I’ll be transparent here — I have no idea how to informally educate him in math. I have purchased in the past Ray’s mathematical books, the curriculum that was so common in the 1800s, and as well the Life of Fred series, which is math in more of a story format. I didn’t really use either one. I just thought that it was most important for him to be advancing through a “real” math curriculum. Now I am seeing and beginning to wonder if “late is better than early.” I see the error in pushing a boy to perform tasks that he just simply may not be ready for. I confess though, this has been an exhausting experience. I hardly know what to do or where to turn.

I know that you probably have much to attend to. However, I was wondering if you might be willing to provide some counsel for me. Upon reading this, what would your thoughts be in regards to our situation? Our 6 year old is so very ready to learn to read and do school. He was a part of Classical Conversations last year for his first year. He probably would have read, had I taken time to teach him. However, with my oldest taking so much time and attention and having such struggles with reading (and math) I thought it best to wait. Did you delay formal math instruction for all of your children? Is there a guide to informally teaching math? I’m so overwhelmed that I hardly know where to begin.

God bless,
Marla D.

What we suggest is:

1. Formal textbook or workbook instruction in arithmetic may begin at age ten. It is about age ten that the developmental light bulb goes on, and the child becomes capable of a great deal more mental and physical skill. (Of course that’s not an absolute rule. With a few children, it is as early as eight. We call them “bright” children because the developmental light bulb goes on early.) Waiting until the child is developmentally prepared to handle the concepts makes instruction in arithmetic very easy, because the child learns very quickly.

2. There is no necessity for formal teaching in arithmetic before age ten. Once all of the developmental parts are there, most children can learn – in a few weeks – everything which they might have spent six years learning (kindergarten through fifth grade), that is, if they haven’t already learned it through questions and experiences and working things out on their own — which is generally the case.

3. Depending upon the child, upon the method, and upon the subject matter covered, there exists the potential for developmental harm from the formal teaching of arithmetic before age ten. Small children cannot understand many arithmetic concepts at an early age. We can teach them to perform the process, but we cannot make them understand the concepts. The child “learns” to hate “learning.” The child’s understanding develops along the wrong lines. He may actually develop mental “blocks” to arithmetic – actual physiological blocks in the brain. (This may give new meaning for the term “blockhead.”)

4. Not formally teaching arithmetic before age ten frees up a lot of time for other activities which will build the vocabulary of the child. Vocabulary is the number one index of intelligence. Developing vocabulary was one of the deliberate foci of ancient education. We waste valuable time for developing vocabulary and verbal language skills if we instead spend those hours teaching a five year old to count by fives. (He’ll know it intuitively by age ten anyway, without ever being taught.) Instead, we ought to spend those hours reading to him. We only have so much time in the day. Do we want to spend it trying to force math skills into a child who developmentally is not optimally prepared, or spend it doing what is developmentally natural to a young child – learning new words and associating them with new ideas and experiences. Stretch the child’s vocabulary during the formative years, and when he’s developmentally ready to do some deeper thinking, he’ll have a mind prepared to take on the task, and he’ll take off like a rocket.

Please note: We are not saying that no child should ever utter the name of a number before age ten. Not at all. About age four, most children discover money, and there is no hiding numbers from them after that. They encounter numbers all of the time. If we encourage learning, then they’ll be asking lots of questions, and we’ll be full of opportunities to teach numbers and measurement. But we would not encourage using a formal workbook before age ten, unless the child has a genuine desire to do so, he shows that he is competent to handle the work, and it does not take away time from other valuable activities. We are not going to ruin the child if we wait until age ten before beginning formal teaching of arithmetic.

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