There’s a mystique about math that applies to no other subject. It’s as if humans were divided into two types: (1) those who are good in math and (2) those who aren’t. No one says: “I’m just not a history person” or “English is beyond me.” Yet we allow our children to say, “I’m not good at math,” as if this subject were in a category by itself, one you’re either born good at or you’re not.

While it is true that some children are more gifted in this subject than others, thirty years of teaching experience has taught me that those students who are “bad” in math have one thing in common: they

have not mastered three essential skills. When these skills are mastered, they somehow become “good” in math. It is therefore not a matter of being “good” or “bad” but rather a matter of learning these three skills.

Neatness

The first of these skills is neatness. The first thing you, as a homeschooling parent, can do to improve your child’s math ability is to insist on neatness. Decades of teaching have reinforced this rule for me. My students who were “good” in math turned in neat papers.

Why is neatness so important? Some of it has to do with lining up. When you add, subtract, or work with decimals, everything must be lined up correctly, or you get the problem wrong. Some of it might have to do with the essence of the subject itself—math is an orderly, logical discipline, and perhaps the student must be orderly and logical to master it. But whatever the reason, neatness counts.

Step by Step

The neatness rule is something a parent can handle fairly easily. The second skill is a little harder, because math is what I call a “ladder” subject.

Let’s say you are taking a history class, the subject of which is World War II. During the previous semester, all your classmates have taken a class on World War I. You know nothing about World War I, so you are at a slight disadvantage—but only a slight one, because you don’t have to know everything about World War I to master the facts about World War II. That knowledge might help a little, but you could still do well in the class despite the fact that you didn’t take the previous semester’s history class. This is true because history is not a ladder subject. You don’t have to take it one step at a time; you can just plunge in the middle and take it from there.

Math is a ladder subject. You have to master one step before you can go to the next. Repeat: You have to master one step before you go to the next. You have to. If your child is given an assignment that requires three skills and he has mastered only one of these skills, he will not be able to complete the assignment. He simply does not have the background.

Again, this has nothing to do with being good or bad. Your child is only “bad” in math because, for

whatever reason, she failed to master the skills necessary to handle the particular problem she has at the moment. If she has skipped two rungs on the math ladder, you must stop and teach her those skills before you can get down to the assignment at hand. Those of you who are knowledgeable in math can do this yourself; if not, your child will have to backtrack to previous lessons until these skills are mastered. This must be done, or the situation will just get worse and worse, and your child will get further and further behind. Trust me on this—if your child is having difficulty with second-grade math, he won’t have any greater success with the third-grade lessons; in fact, he will be even less successful.

Math Facts

We now come to the subject of math facts, the most important skill of all and the one hardest to explain. Bear with me as I propose a slightly fanciful analogy.