How can you get better at Mental Maths?

(27 Posts)
Solo2 Sat 27-Nov-10 12:13:50

Any Maths teachers on here?

My 9 yr old boy twins are both in the middle maths group at their academically selective school and are both 'failing' in this group, especially in Mental Maths. They'll get marks like 8 out of 25 or, at absolute best, 14 out of 25.

I've talked with the teacher and he's given me extra work for me to do with them at home but I'm not actually sure how this will translate into them improving. Demotion might have to happen if they don't improve my March - which would mean starting again with a different teacher and their self-esteem being compromised even more.

They're terrified of the teacher who does the bottom group. On the other hand, the bottom group only has 20 children and a full-time TA and their middle group has 26 children and only a 20 min a week period where another teacher comes in to take a small subgroup. The rest of the time is whole class teaching.

Mental Maths involves them having to work at speed, under pressure, without showing or writing any working. So what they can do slowly, under relaxed conditions, is different from what they can at speed, under pressure.

It seems that there are various component parts of mental maths, including: a) knowing number bonds and timestables instantaneously b) knowing what operation to apply at any one time to any one subject - eg is this a question where you have to divide or multiply? c) being able to listen all the way through to the end of a question, retain the info. and do the correct calcumation at speed, whilst retaining throughout, different parts of the sum in your mind.

There are probably a lot more aspects too. Other than simply repetitive practice at home with me (which also involves first getting them to comply), are there any absolutely specific techniques/ processes that would help them?

Maths has always been my worst subject, so I'm not the best person to help them. They don't seem to be 'taught' how to approach and process diffreent kinds of sum - just regularly tested on how well they can do them. I've already asked the teacher what to do and he just gave me extra work for them and told me to ensure they know number bonds and times tables v well.

Any advice from the more mathematically-inclined here?

OP’s posts: |
Mercedes Sat 27-Nov-10 12:48:09

I found with my dd playing cards really helped. Her ability to make quick decisions when we are all playing competitively helped. Plus we make her responsible for keeping the scores.

Solo2 Sat 27-Nov-10 18:30:56

Thanks Mercedes. DCs aren't v good at any games like this because of getting overly competitive and upset if they lose! But it sounds like an interesting idea.

Any teachers on here who can help?

OP’s posts: |
lolathelioness Sat 27-Nov-10 18:46:28

This book might be worth looking at.

BlueberryPancake Sat 27-Nov-10 19:39:52

Hello, I'm apparently Blueberry's husband and just happened to see this. I'm also Head of Maths at our Primary School. It sounds to me that your boys are pressurised and tested too much to me. Maths can and should be a real fun subject. You have to get children thinking about maths not just remembering facts (although number bonds and times tables are absolutely fundamenatal.

Have a look at these three websites and see if you think they would like them. They are competitive but you can choose your own level so your boys might like them: - this is free

good luck
Mr Blueberry!

TheCrackFox Sat 27-Nov-10 19:56:26

Thanks for that Mr Blueberry - I too have a 9 yr old boy whose teacher feels like strangling him. He says my son is very bright but so lazy. Aargh. Anyway, I have bookmarked your recommendations.

EBDteacher Sat 27-Nov-10 20:08:49

OP, your list of the 'components' of Mental maths is very good but it requires having a good working memory. This is different to long and short term memory- it's like the mental sketchpad where you hold and manipulate learned and contextual information and underlies the abilities you outline in point c).

There is good evidence that working memory can be improved. Have a look at these:

Can recommend both but Lumosity is particularly palatable.

Good luck!


EBDteacher Sat 27-Nov-10 20:10:42


Solo2 Sat 27-Nov-10 20:12:46

Thanks BlueberryPancake. The school already use Mathletics and at home we've tried Tutpup. The problem for me is that these seem fun add-ons but don't appear to teach exact strategies/ approaches to problems. DS1 tends to try the easiest levels on these things, so doesn't progress and DS2 tries level 3 but gets hyper-upset if he's beaten by other 'players' online.

Their Maths teacher claims to want to increase their confidence but then undermines this by announcing in lessons, "and X (DS1) ONLY got 7 out of 25! You'll have to do better than that! or you'll get demoted to the bottom group!"

Also, when DS2 asked the teacher to repeat a mental maths question the other day, the teacher refused, so DS2 responded to what he'd heard "What is seven eighths?" He was told the question had actually been what is "seven eights" and that he'd got it wrong and needed to learn his timestables better.

He was devastated as he is an absolute whizz at his times-tables (unlike DS1) so had been told off for 'not listening' but not helped to hear the question again and then told off for something that wasn't true. the teacher has a strong Irish accent so the children can't always understand what he says.

DS2's marks have now declined and whereas before, it was DS1 who was supposed to be dropping behind, it's now DS2 as well. I think they've both lost confidence and don't respond well to sarcasm and public humiliation. But this is how it is. There's no way I can say point blank to the teacher, "You know you and I have kept talking about increasing DCs confidence in Matsh - but they keep reporting things that indicate what you do is having the opposite effect. Please change your teaching methods accordingly!" This wouldn't go down v well!

So, what I really need now is some strategies to help them get so good at mental maths that no matter what the teacher is like, they'll rise to the challenge!

OP’s posts: |
EBDteacher Sat 27-Nov-10 20:41:49

Go for improving their WM. It will help.

SkyBluePearl Sat 27-Nov-10 21:04:41

this may or may not help. costs 100 pounds for 1 year and is all computer led. looks fun.

cece Sat 27-Nov-10 21:09:47

Play darts and get them to work out the scores.

Practice in the car - quick fire questions. Start with easy ones you know they can do to get their confidence up. 5 mins a day doing this will see results.

If the teacher is willing get them to send the test home so you can go trough 2 questions they found hard each week.

Make sure they are secure with their times tables, number bonds to 10, 20, 50, 100, 1000 etc., know facts such as 1000g is the same as 1kg and so on, the rules for dividing and multiplying by 10, 100 and 1000, things like square numbers....

Is that enough to start with?

honeybeetree Sat 27-Nov-10 21:11:31

The game called the 24 game is great for mental maths

pozzled Sat 27-Nov-10 21:21:59

Agree with lots of quick-fire questions, starting off with 'easy' ones. That should help to build up confidence.

Also help them to spot patterns e.g. can they use their times table knowledge to quickly find division facts? If they know 7 x 8 can they work out 70 x 8, or even 0.7 x 8 if they are expected to be working with decimals.

Solo2 Sun 28-Nov-10 09:02:23

Thanks a lot. That's v helpful, especially about working memory. Both my twins score badly on this area compared with general IQ, so no wonder they're struggling with mental maths.

It looks like I'll have to put ina lot of work to help them improve, which will go along side the one hour homework a night that they get plus their two musical instrument practice each per night!!!! Neither will do anything without me there to supervise and encourage. So I can foresee some challenging evenings ahead!

I wish the school could do more for and with them, as I am the worst person to help, given it becomes a battle straightaway when I suggest it might be time to start homework etc!

OP’s posts: |
cece Sun 28-Nov-10 12:36:55

An hour a night of homework plus music practice is far too much! No wonder they are protesting.

For Year 5 the recommended amount is 20 mins per evening.

You shouldn't have to be supervising closely either. My nine year old does it own her own. The only thing I do is remind her to get started on her homeowrk. I only check it if she asks me to and I only help if she asks me. It is the teachers job to check it and tell her if she has gone wrong.

Solo2 Sun 28-Nov-10 14:20:12

Well, it's an academic school and I think they work at least one year in advance of their age, hence the extra homework too. DS2 can do most homework unsupervised, except (in recent weeks) maths. DS1 needs me to be right beside him to get him to do anything.

This w/e we are still ploughing through the maths - where I'm sitting with them one at a time, as they need to know HOW to do it as well as doing it. They've only been taught a bit of it at school.

They've got 11 pages of maths each, related to fractions and I'm already stuck on trying to explain to them in 9 yr old language how to do things like: "Change these improper fractions to mixed numbers eg 12/5 = 2 2/5. So do the same for 20/15; 17/15; 24/6 etc etc " and then the other way round - mixed numbers to improper fractions and then pages of things like: "12/6 = 6/8= X over 4 What is X? etc etc.

I'm struggling to remember how to do these, as it's about 33 yrs since I did my Maths O level and have done virtually no maths since!!!!

OP’s posts: |
Carolinemaths Sun 28-Nov-10 14:29:31

My daughter used to go to an academically selective school (we now live abroad) and I'm surprised that your son's school sets for maths.

Is the school using Schofield and Sims Mental Maths? If so, (or even if not) buy a copy from Smiths or Amazon and work through a test or half a test at a time every day. If needed, buy the book which is a level easier than they are working on in order to build up confidence and it'll be easier for them to build up their listening and speed skills with easier questions.

Make it less tiresome by mixing it up a bit, get them to compete against each other and against you against the clock, give them oral tests sometimes and written tests sometimes, you mark the work sometimes and sometimes they mark each others work.

I wrote a review of Maths-Whizz on my Maths Insider website, but basically it's a very good program which will improve your boys maths attainment but I'm not sure if it will help directly with their "mental maths" in the short term, but is definitely a great longterm option. The review has a link to a Maths-Whizz "Maths Age" test and 5 free lessons if you did want to test it out.

Moving to a lower maths class may be a blow to their confidence initially, but being top of a lower set may be better than being bottom of a higher class (also their maths teacher may just be playing crazy mind games with them and has no intention of moving them down)

Hope this helps smile

crazymum53 Sun 28-Nov-10 14:49:34

My dd is in Y6 at an ordinary state school and we have been told that 12 out of 20 is the mark needed to qualify for level 4c which is the national average for an 11 year old at the end of year 6.
Your twins are only 9 so the school is obviously expecting children to be working at least one year above their age so they are hardly failing.
Guess this may be par for the course in an academically selective school but would be extremely reluctant to label 9 year olds as failing in this area.
Hope this help get things in perspective!

cece Sun 28-Nov-10 17:56:13

Even if they are a year ahead, my Year 6 are only expected to do 25 mins of homework per night.

mnistooaddictive Sun 28-Nov-10 20:37:53

Do they know the strategies such as to add 32 you add 30 and then 2. To subtract 19, subtract 20 and then add one back on etc. It really is just practice.

camicaze Sun 28-Nov-10 22:42:41

My dd was quite average at maths and off to a selective prep school in Yr3, so I did loads of extra maths with her. She would have been bottom in the prep but after a year and a half of effort she is now near the top. She was younger but it wasn't easy for me. From my experience two things made the difference. First ensuring that she could do the really easy stuff 'in her sleep' before asking her to do more challenging bits - thats vital. Mental maths (or I think any maths)breaks down when too many parts of the calculation have to be worked out. Learn the very easiest stuff by rote until the answer is instantaneous (halves, doubles, number bonds and ensure a really strong grasp of how to use place value in calculations). As dd didn't always concentrate as well orally we would often write a whole page of simple sums and her challenge was to do them quicker than last time.
Second tip - dogged endless insistence that we did some maths as a priority everyday, holidays, term time, when tired and grumpy - always...
Maybe I sound cruel but I was rubbish at maths and felt my dd was going the same way and wanted to save her from years of misery in maths lessons. She loves maths now and gets such a kick out of being able to do it - so it all seems worthwhile.
BTW I really recommend 'RM Maths'. Its used in lots of schools and is incredibly sophisticated program to give practice in maths to all primary age children. It is massively reduced for private buyers and was a real lifesaver. it really focuses on building skills incrementally so if you start your child at a lowish level they can fill some of the holes that are slowing them down.

sarahfreck Tue 30-Nov-10 14:33:40

you need a good working memory to be good at mental maths and some children are better at this than others. As a tutor I use listening skill activities to help students with working memory and I like the activities in these books. lls

Boys often like activities where they can be physically active. If they are not good at competitive games, could you do some "challenges" where they have to work as a team to beat their previous score?

An example - Maths race.
Prepare a list of mental arithmetic sums of a type you would like them to practice. ( You could start with number bonds or times tables)
Have a whiteboard/blackboard on easel or large sheet of paper and relevant chalk/pen at far end of room. Pre-mark the paper/board with question numbers 1. 2. 3. etc.

Set a timer for 3 minutes or whatever. Give dc1 the first sum on list. He has to stand still and work out answer, and as soon as he has done this run to board/paper and write the answer against 1. then run back. As soon as he has run back give dc2 a sum to do in same way. Keep alternating between them. See how many they can do correctly between them in 3 minutes (or whatever time you think). Then let them try and beat that score the next day. This also has the advantage that they have to use their working memory to remember the answer as they run to write it down. You can then extend this activity to get them to remember and write down the sum as well as the answer or by putting the paper/board in a different room so they have to extend the amount of time they remember the answer.
Make sure they aren't only wearing socks though of you could end up with slips and bumps and also remove any ornaments/cats/dogs from the scene beforehand so that there aren't any breakages of expensive vets bills.

Example 2. - Mountain climbing
Stand both dc's at the bottom of the stairs. Explain this is a mountain that they are both going to climb. As climbers always look after their partners, they should pretend they are roped together and that they can't ever be more than three stairs apart (because the rope isn't long enough).

Give dc1 a sum. If he gets it correct he stands on step one. Then do the same for dc2. Keep alternating questions. If they get it right they go up a step, wrong they go down. If by going up or down they would be more than 3 steps apart, higher one will not be able to move even with right answer or must go down a step if twin gets one wrong. They are not allowed to tell the other an answer but can give hints on strategy ( eg 33 + 29 - "try adding 30 and taking away one"). Time how long it takes them both to get to the top of the mountain. See if they can beat their time on another day.

IndigoBell Tue 30-Nov-10 15:07:46

sarah - book looks interesting. Even though it's called 'listening skills', does it specifically help with working memory problems?

sarahfreck Tue 30-Nov-10 15:16:13

Yes I think it does Indigo Bell. It asks dcs to do tasks where they have to remember more than one instruction at once and the instructions slowly get more complex.
eg. (Dc looking a a box with various symbols, numbers and words in) "Draw a line from the circle to the square; if there are two numbers less than 20, circle the number larger than 15. You may begin."
This is the 7-9 year old book.

Also has list of words (say 4) then you repeat the words in different order with one missing. Dc has to say the missing word.
then it builds up to a 5 word list and so on.
It also has some sheets to help with visual memory skills ( recalling details in a picture). All worksheets are photocopiable.

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