Teaching my pre-school children

Over the next few posts I am going to explain how I helped my third and youngest child with reading and maths before he started school. I was enormously naive with child number one and presumed she had a fixed ability in numeracy and literacy. I made no special effort to teach my child before she started school and when her Reception teacher told me she was stronger with words than numbers I nodded acceptingly. Of course, she inherited my leaning towards the humanities! However, in Year One, it was clear my daughter’s maths was relatively weak. I realised she would struggle at the local 7+ prep school where we had a fee discount and need weekly remedial maths. I could have been angry that this prep school would consider such a young child as ‘behind’ and rejected that school for judging my daughter at a young age. However, I now realise such loving sentiments actually sell your child short, presuming it is they that have the problem. While children undoubtedly vary in ability virtually ALL are perfectly capable of ‘excelling’ at maths with the right teaching. My experiences teaching maths to my own children made it clear to me how children in Hong Kong can be 21 months ahead of their English peers aged 5.  The stunning ability of some very young children in maths now seems more the result of parental choice than natural precociousness.

I absolutely don’t think parents should feel an obligation to do formal work at home with their children but I do what to share my experiences with those interested. I didn’t choose for my young children’s lives to be dominated by maths. However, I have taught them enough to ensure they are all very strong mathematicians who find school maths easy – and thus quite fun. The story of how I came to help my children is here. I also explain my reasons for doing extra teaching with my children at home here and here.

It surprises me how often people ask me for advice on how they should help their own children with numeracy and literacy and I hope these posts will help. I also want to have a record for myself as it is amazing how fast you forget when your children move past each phase. I intend these to be working documents I edit as I remember extra details and in the light of any good advice/corrections. I don’t claim to be an expert – these are my tips, from my own experience. Make of them what you will!

In this first post I want to outline some general useful principles I have learned for anyone wanting to help their child in reading or maths.

1. Habits

It is easier to teach your child if you have a regular routine. After a little initial novelty it is unlikely a child will want to sit down and work every day and you will soon run out of fun and exciting ideas that tempt your child by their novelty and fun. Doing your work at a fixed time each day means it will soon become a habit, an accepted part of the daily routine. When beginning a new routine make sure work is quite easy and rewarding and very gradually increase the demand.

2. Difficulty

Don’t make work difficult. Much should be repetition of very familiar material so that your child gains fluency and automaticity. If they are becoming very resistant to working it may well be that you need to make the work easier. Have you jumped ahead too fast?

3. Motivation

This is such a tricky and fascinating question. I know many parents are terrified of requiring children to do work when it goes against their inclination. They fear the child will be put off. All I can say is that motivation can also come from a sense of self efficacy. If your child begins to find maths hard at school then all that effort and strain to motivate though fun will be lost in a blink off an eye. My children didn’t always want to do the work I gave them but school maths is easy and thus enjoyable.

I do offer rewards for doing dull tasks such as learning tables but I have always been careful to withdraw these as soon as possible, using them to get over a  ‘hump’ but never as a permanent fixture.

4. A systematic approach

You want your child to learn new knowledge systematically. If a task seems too difficult it can probably be broken down into a series of smaller steps. Ensure only one small part of a task is unfamiliar or tricky.

5. Fluency and automaticity.

It is important not to move on to new material until what has been covered is known so well a child can give the answer like they would their own name. This means lots of real ‘overlearning’ of ideas. For example, I think my son was given the calculation 4+3 for two years, most days, in some form or another.

6. Avoid topic work

Don’t focus on one topic for a period of time, to the exclusion of others. You want to build understanding but what is most challenging is to ensure something the child has understood – is learnt – stuck – forever – in memory. Therefore ensure that most of each day’s work is practice of previously learnt material. As something becomes more familiar you can cycle it less frequently and ultimately it will be practised as part of more complex operations. Never underestimate a humans ability to forget what seems well learnt!

7. Progress

This is never linear. It seems to generally involve nearly as much regression as progression. I have found that the point when I despair of my child ever learning the thing I thought they had learnt months ago, they are probably very close to really ‘getting it’. As the saying goes, ‘ It is always darkest just before dawn’! Break something down into smaller steps whenever you can but hang on in there! Remember that for a child learning something in one context means they will only be able to do that thing in that one limited context (and they many forget even that). It is your job to introduce the new learning in a gradually expanding range of contexts. What seems like perverse forgetfulness really isn’t. Patiently re-explain.

8. Memory

Remember that this is all about building memory. You can’t do this if you don’t revisit material regularly as part of a routine. If you want to support your child it needs to be most days or they will not remember previous work.

9. Don’t help too much

Explain clearly but work towards practice being independent. If you leap in with prompts and help they will not be able to do the work unsupported. If it is too challenging go back a few steps or break the task down but aim to quickly have your child doing the work set by themselves.

10. Buy lots of pencils and exercise books

Don’t bother with most of the commercial products available in WH Smith. At best they can guide you as to what is taught at school but your child needs literally hundreds of times more practice than those books provide.

You can find out more about the content they need to learn from the National Curriculum. I also recommend this book:

What every child need sot know

In ‘What Every Parent Needs to Know’ Toby Young and Miranda Thomas have created a year by year breakdown of the new primary National Curriculum. It includes what your child will be taught in every subject and why. What they’re expected to know at the end of each year and the test they will take.

In my next posts I will outline specific ways I helped my pre-school son with maths and reading.

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4 thoughts on “Teaching my pre-school children

  1. This is great, and is very similar to what I did with my own two before they started school. I have written recently about the need to ‘programme’ children based the on basic understanding of neurobiology, especially during the early years when brain plasticity is so high, rather than take the view that things sort of happen by accident or through play (it might happen through play, but inefficiently and what is learned might also be wrong).

    I think the phenomenon of parents teaching children through efficient, formal methods is very common, and it also supports my view that EYFS play-based and ultra-progressive settings are merely babysitting that is seemingly effective because so many parents are doing the teaching at home.

    It is also worth noting that I know many EYFS teachers who just want to get out of their year group and teach in Year 1 or 2. They say they can’t cope with the requirements to teach in addition to dealing with all the social issues that present in the reception year. There is a real issue with control of behaviour when there is a mandatory requirement for the majority of children to be playing whilst teaching a small group their early steps in reading, writing and arithmetic.

    1. Thanks I do agree and those problems don’t surprise me. Early years needs a few very vocal campaigners questioning these orthodoxies that are based on such flimsy justifications.

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