How to improve Math score

1. Not good at math?

There are many reasons that a child is not able to get a good score in Math.

We need to identify the causes that prevent the child from getting a perfect score every time and prioritize the causes.  If your child is in the first or second grade, it is easier to figure it out as the subjects they have learned are limited. As the grade of the child goes up, it gets more complicated and time-consuming, even just identifying the causes.

2. Three major reasons

Even though there are many reasons that your child is not able to get the perfect score every time, the following three types of reasons cover the majority of them. We break down each reason further to more specific ones that directly associate with the action items.

However, understanding these three types is very important since the types of countermeasures are entirely different.

1) Not proficient enough

    This reason applies to addition, subtraction, multiplication, division, fraction so on. If a child tends to get 40 to 70 points in tests, this may be the primary cause. In the US, the lack of emphasis on proficiency causes a huge problem for years. Asian families tend to put the emphasis on the proficiency of basic arithmetic culturally and pave the way for the child to succeed in the STEM area.

     Knowing how to calculate and calculating accurately at a reasonable time are entirely different. Even your child knows how to add 8 + 9; if he/she uses his/her finger or calculating carry over by dividing 9 to 2 + 7 and takes more than 1 seconds, your child is not proficient enough.

  Many parents did not understand the importance of proficiency fully and leave their child at risk. Of cause, your child needs to know how to calculate. In addition to that, your child needs to memorize the combinations even in addition and subtraction like you memorized a multiplication table.

2) Lack of conceptual understanding

    If the child is not able to answer some patterns of questions at all such as carry over, regrouping, rounding, decimals, or fraction, this could be the reason.

3) Comprehension

    There are a group of students who are very good at calculation but not at all on word problems.  Many students who attended Kumon are in this group.

3. Typical symptoms

1) Proficiency

If the child can get 60 to 70 points in the majority of math tests, but not a perfect score, we check his/her proficiency. Since the child could get 60 or 70 points in the many tests, he/she usually understands the key concepts but was not able to solve all questions in time or made many mistakes.

2) Missing concept

If the child got a significantly lower score in a particular subject comparing other subjects, it suggests he/she could not get the key concept of the subject. Usually, he/she feels uncomfortable on the subject and self-recognize that he/she does not fully understand the concept.

This happens a lot in fraction, reading time and approximation. Some students do not have a good understanding of number sense and struggle with math after 4th grade when they start using large numbers and decimals. They know how to calculate technically or mechanically but do not know fully what each digit means. So, once the numbers get larger or have a decimal, then they easily confuse.

3) Comprehension

The child who is good at math and gets a good score in general especially calculation. However, he/she made mistakes frequently on word problems or is not able to understand the meaning of questions.

4. Assessment

1) Do not ignore proficiency

If your child is categorized in case 2, missing concept, or case 3, comprehension, usually the problem is clear, and the child recognizes the weakness. The challenge is case 1 and the combination of case 1 and case 2 and/or case 3.

2) 80 points is not enough

If your child is not able to get more than 90 points on the math tests, I would strongly suggest checking the proficiency of basic calculation. In general, the proficiency requirement in the US is too low unless ignored. There is misunderstanding or confusion on proficiency requirement. Again, knowing how to calculate is not enough and often useless in the real world.

3) Avalanche effect

Your child needs to be able to calculate addition, subtraction, and multiplication fast and accurate to go to the next step. These are fundamentals. Without using addition, you are not able to calculate multi-digit multiplication. Without using multiplication and subtraction, you are not able to calculate division. Without understating division, you are not able to calculate fraction and ratio. Without using addition and subtraction, you are not able to calculate time and angle. Without using multiplication, you are not able to calculate area and volume.

So, all Math and STEM subjects entirely rely on these fundamental arithmetic skills. So, these skills should be perfect from both proficiency and accuracy viewpoints.

4) Addition and subtraction need memorization

The basic pattern of addition, subtraction and multiplication require memorization of patterns. Knowing how to calculate is crucial but not enough. To be proficient, your child needs to memorize the patterns. Here is a gap. Majority of parents do not understand the need for memorization and as a result, leave their child behind.

Let’s change the viewing point. Do you build a multi-story building on top of foundation half done?

5) Sad but common drop off pattern

If you accept 70 point test score when your child is/was in 1st and 2nd grade and have/had your child go on, this is what you do or did.  You can easily predict what happens near future. Right?


70% (addition) x 70% (subtraction) x 70% (multiplication) x 70% (division) x 70% (fraction) = 17%

Reality is worse. Since multi-digit multiplication requires addition, if your child got 70 points in addition and learning multiplication, conceptually 70% (multiplication proficiency) x 70% (addition proficiency) = 49%. Since division requires multiplication and subtraction, it is worse. So, some students give up math around division and fraction.

5. Countermeasures

1) Proficiency

If your child has proficiency issues, you need to forget his or her grade and go back to the crucial point and have him/her practice it. It may be annoying for your child or you may face resistance to practice simple addition or multiplication. Some parents complained to us that their child is 5th grade and why their child needed to go back to addition or multiplication too. You need to understand the necessity and explain to your child that knowing how to calculate is not enough, and the speed and accuracy requirement to your child.

You also need to understand that your child needs to memorize the patterns, not calculate fast and accurate, just memorize them.

I have many experiences that the test scores of my students jumped up after improving the proficiency and boost up the confidence of the students.

From our experience, almost all students reached the goal of proficiency in less than two weeks per subject if they practice 15 minutes a day.  Please consider, 15 minutes x 14 = 3.5 hours makes life-changing effects and diverts the course from drop out to an A student. Does it worth to spend?

The practice may sound tedious. But what I found was the opposite. If we share a clear goal, the majority of students enjoy the exercise and tracking the progress. As he/she gets closer to the target time, they are more willing to practice to beat the goal. Once they hit the target time, it gives them satisfaction and confidence. Repeating these practices build their confidence and teach them how to overcome challenges.

2) Missing concept

Concept-related problem is relatively easy to fix. Just revisit the concept. The point is taking enough time and ensure that your child fully understands the concept.  Since school teachers have very limited time per subject, the teachers are not able to wait for all student getting it. If you can sit with your child and spend enough quality time, it would be the best scenario. However, we are all busy, and teaching our child is emotionally challenging for many parents. So, asking a tutor or using other services may be the better choice for you and your child.

Since schools are not able to come back for the follow-up, it is essential to detect this issue as early as possible before the problem causes the ripple effects.

After your child gets the concept, please confirm it by having him/her solving several questions. Understanding concept and being able to use it properly are entirely separate issues.

3) Comprehension

Improving comprehension is challenging and requires mind set change of your child. There are some techniques, but they are not perfect.

i) Change the gear

Your child has trained to solve simple calculation fast and accurate as we discussed at proficiency. Children who attended Kumon have a strong tendency as they have trained to be an excellent human calculator, which is not a bad thing as we discussed in proficiency issue. So, many children try to solve word problem with the same approach, as fast as possible without thinking, which does not work at all.

ii) Three-step approach

They need to change the gear and understand that they need to perform three different steps to solve the word questions. The first step is information extraction. All word problems contain all the necessary information to solve them. In this first step, they need to perform two sub-steps. First of all, they need to understand what they need to answer. Then they need to extract information from a word problem to solve it. Reading a word problem aloud a few times helps a lot to change the gear and understand what they need to answer.

The second step is constructing the equation with the extracted information. This step is far tricky than many adults think for children and requires practice. Many children can perform step 1 but not this step. Some techniques may help in this area. For instance, if the question asks a difference, the equation uses subtraction.

The third step is an easy step and requires just calculating the equation. It is better to explain to your child the needed actions. If you can solve several questions with your child strictly following the steps. Your child will understand the steps and be able to use it. Please note that step 2 requires practices.

6. Additional consideration

If your child struggles printed questions but not much when you ask the question, please check if he/she may have dyslexia. Some researches show about 8% of children have some level of dyslexia.

7. Actions

So, if your child struggles a bit or a lot in Math, please check 1) if he/she is proficient enough. If not, please have them practice as soon as possible. 2) if he/she understands all key concepts. If not, take time and ensure that he/she understands it correctly and can use it properly. 3) if he/she are not good at word problems, share the steps, and practice the steps, especially step-2.

Hiroji Fukui

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