Friday, August 9, 2013


So your school district is all in a lather over Singapore Math.  Some are dead set against the changes coming in the Fall and others are so enamored that they seem almost manic.  This is a common scenario:  two sides, both at the extremes.  Critics and advocates alike will implement the new methods, procedures, and texts like scientists conducting an experiment.  The classroom is the lab.  Results will be evaluated somewhere down the line and assessments made about the effectiveness of the program.  It has happened before with “new math,” Everyday Math, and many other attempts at improvement that have resulted in both success and failure. 

But YOU are the parent and what happens to, for, and with your child is a permanent fixture of his or her education with important future ramifications. To YOU this “experiment” MUST WORK.  Supporters of Singapore Math do not hesitate to stress the importance of parental support for successful implementation.  Some suggest that after-school tutorials and homework are integral factors in the reported success of elementary students in Singapore.  If you are among the group of the hesitant, unsure of your own math knowledge and ability to adjust to Singapore Math, this article will help you become a competent homework assistant.



1.  Many of the “informational” publications about SM are lean on specifics.  You’ll hear that the Singapore Math program as amended for American Schools teaches mathematical concepts from concrete through pictorial to abstract, devoting more time to fewer topics and stressing “mastery.”  This limited information seems to me to be more of a sales pitch than useful data. 

It is up to the parent to drill down to details that will help each student to learn the math fundamentals.

For example, here is the sequence of study for the first week or two of each grade:
    Kindergarten:      Numbers to 5
    First Grade:         Numbers to 10
    Second:              Numbers to 1,000
    Third:                  Numbers to 10,000
    Fourth:                Place Value of Whole Numbers
    Fifth:                   Whole Numbers
    Sixth:                  Positive Numbers/Number Line

With this information in mind, you can help prepare your student for the first few days of school by reviewing the numbers that will be covered.

2.  To ensure that you are in the loop throughout the school year, be sure you are receiving the “School-to-Home Connections” newsletters from the teacher at the beginning of each chapter.  These include a summary of the upcoming lessons, vocabulary, and an activity to support learning at home.  The newsletters are available to the teacher as prewritten resources which can be printed for general distribution, emailed, or posted on the school’s homework website. (Sixth through eighth grade newsletters are called “Family Letters.”)

3.  Many of the “new techniques” used in SM are similar to systems used in the 1950s and 1960s.  That’s a little before the grammar school dates of most of today’s parents, but here is a tremendous opportunity to get gramma and grampa involved.  Ask them about “friendly numbers.”

I am of that era and remember breaking large numbers into workable groups. (In fact, I still use this system for mental math, which is a chore for me rather than a talent.) For example, studies have shown that most people can “picture” numbers up to 6 in patterns found on playing cards.  The number 7 becomes more difficult to envision, but it can be broken up into 5 and 2.  Adding 5 and 7 is the same as adding 5 plus 5 plus 2.  Adding 5s is a familiar pattern; 5 + 5 = 10.  Add another 2 to find the sum of 5  + 7.  In Singapore Math, this is called “adding with regrouping.” Learning the process is facilitated by using manipulatives.

Subtracting with regrouping is similar.   Seven can also be broken up into 3 and 4.  So 13 - 7 becomes 13 - 3 to get 10 and then subtracting 10 - 4.  Ten is the friendly number in this case.

For early elementary students, using manipulatives to find number patterns (called number families in some very old textbooks) is a common practice.**

**  Manipulative “dots” are available free of charge to fans of this blog.  Become a fan and send a request for a set of 100 Dots through the comments section that follows this article or email

4.  Singapore Math uses “place value mats” as early as first grade.  The classroom teacher should have a template which can be copied and distributed to families, or you can easily make your own by replicating the following pattern.  Columns should be long enough to accommodate 5 manipulative dots (breaking 10 up into friendly 5s).  Laminating the mat will ensure that it holds up to 6 years of single student use or as a sibling hand-me-down.  At the second grade level you’ll want headings for thousands, third grade ten thousands.

5.  ADDITION (OR SUBTRACTION) WITH RENAMING are the SM terms for “carry the one”  and “borrow” with which you might be more familiar.  Be sure to review the vocabulary from the School-to-Home newsletter and ask the teacher if the connection to the math you know is not immediately obvious.

6.  After manipulatives, SM might move to drawings to transfer tactile knowledge to the more conceptual/visual format.  You may want to practice setting up word problems using this system.  It is not complicated when you've mastered the routine steps for creating bar models.  Check out The Normal Genius blog, "Singapore Math: Using Bar Models," posted on August 2, 2013.

7.  Other techniques that SM uses to engage students and stimulate higher level thinking include a heavy use of word problems (called “practical applications” in some older textbooks and college courses) and classroom discussions.  The format frequently presents a story that would use some form of math to solve a problem, let the students work independently or in groups to “think it out,” followed by presentations of their solutions.  This practice has long been supported by the National Council of Teachers of Math which emphasizes both real life situation applications and the importance of communication in mathematics either through speaking or writing.  It encourages students to identify and recognize their own problem solving thinking, a metacognitive element of learning.

You can help your student prepare for this task by practicing explaining the steps to a solution for sample homework problems.  Your own ability to model the process could be a valuable asset for your student.

8.  Thinking through problems is only part of the SM formula.  Rehearsal of basic math facts is still required but will need to take place at home.  Ask the teacher for supplemental materials outside of the workbook exercises.  Try chanting the multiplication tables (like you did to learn them) while throwing a ball back and forth or bouncing it on the floor for students who need to move while learning.  Or chant to a particular beat for the musically inclined.  Use your imagination to design drills that meet the specific needs of your unique student.

9.  Not necessarily part of the Singapore Math program, but a useful tool for upper elementary students when word problems can become quite complicated, is a strategy I call “Is that your final answer?”  It sets the framework for what the answer will look like, set up at the beginning of the problem solving process and insuring that the student doesn’t stop too soon or go down a blind alley while working out a solution.  In either math symbols (4X = ___ ) or words (4 pencils cost ___ ), the practice is similar to checking the question after working through the math.

So your school district is all in a lather over Singapore Math.  But you are calm, cool, and collected because you are prepared to help your student make the most of the program and maybe even gain confidence in your own math skills at the same time.


  1. Singapore Math requires focus for both the student and the teacher.

  2. Agreed, Carlos. In fact, I discovered in my own study of math that focus and a willingness to ask "why" are equally important. When I ask that question of my students, the answer "cuz you said so" is never good enough. My hope is that we can inspire our kids to LOVE the math, so whether it's SM or another format, I wish you and your students much success.