Letters to the Editor: Math instruction is hard, but teachers are rising to the challenge

Students in an L.A. Unified classroom during a math lesson.
Students in an L.A. Unified classroom during a math lesson.
(Los Angeles Times)

To the editor: It might behoove Daniel Willingham to take a peek at current math standards and math textbooks for elementary schools. His many complaints about the teaching of math are practically the raison d’etre for the current Common Core standards, causing parents so much angst at homework time. (“Math scares your child’s elementary school teacher — and that should frighten you,” Opinion, Nov. 21)

I retired after more than 30 years of teaching, and for at least the last 10 years, basic algebraic principals have been increasingly taught in my second-grade class. Equal signs no longer mean “insert answer here.” Algorithms are often taught way after concepts are introduced, with lesson after lesson preceding as to the how and why it is going to work.

I often heard from parents frustrated that we couldn’t just “tell” the kids how to do it. Students had to be able to show solutions in numerous ways, by drawing pictures, breaking integers into parts, working it out on number lines, and being able to explain their thinking in writing or verbally.

I agree that teaching elementary subjects at that basic level is way more complex than most people know, and we elementary teachers by necessity have to be masters of a wide range of knowledge. Give us decent training and time, and you’ll be amazed at what elementary teachers can do.


Melissa Walsh, West Hills


To the editor: Willingham got it right. The current method of teaching math in the elementary schools at which I work is confusing.

As a substitute teacher today, I know it is impossible, in the short time I have to prepare for the day’s instruction, to read, understand and prepare for teaching a math lesson. It’s rather frustrating to teach something for the students to understand if I’m unsure of the steps and process myself.


I had the opportunity to observe a regular first-grade teacher try to explain addition by adding to “10" first, and then adding what’s left to the 10. She had to repeat it several times, and I don’t think her students all understood.

In addition, parents then also have the burden and frustration of helping their kids with their math homework today.

Barbara Segal, Carlsbad


To the editor: Why couldn’t one student student realize, as Willingham writes, that 0.015 is less than 0.5? Why is the equal sign a concept that’s often misunderstood?

The numbering system (decimal, octal or hexadecimal, for example) is arbitrarily made up by people for the convenience of counting (by fingers or by other means), not by nature. The confusions could be eliminated by adopting a physical approach to math.

Use a balance as the equal sign. Use material objects such as marbles or cakes as numbers. Have the student balance the objects on one side by placing objects on the other side. The operations of addition, subtraction, multiplication and even division can be discovered by students hands-on rather than through teaching on paper.

Try it. It is fun to have student and teacher learn together in a game like this.


Paul Chow, Porter Ranch

The writer is a professor emeritus of physics at Cal State Northridge.

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