Teaching Math

How to Evaluate Your Child’s Math Skills Based on Language

August 27, 2019
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In order to increase your child’s math skills, you have to identify the starting point of your child’s comprehension. There are strategic ways to do this to ensure you’re not confusing your child even more.

Rather than evaluate your child’s math skills by giving them a problem like “What is 5+4?” or “What is 7x9?”, where they could have memorized the answer, try to evaluate your child’s math skills based on language. If your student does not understand what is happening with the symbols behind what is on a piece of paper, they are not going to be able to apply the math to solve real life problems. Because success and ease at teaching comes from comprehension rather than proficiency, this will also ensure that your student is able to understand what you are saying when you are introducing new ideas.

Ask your child some word questions to determine if they understand what you mean when talking about math. Here are some examples of how you can test understanding math concepts.


To test counting, there are several things you can do. If you want to see if your student has comprehension, you may try a producing exercise with them.

Ask them to give you eight things. If the student is able to pass over eight items, stopping at eight without help, then they are proficient at counting. If they continue, it is okay; let them continue to see how high they may get, but you may then see if they are proficient at “How many?” This is what many parents play with their children already. You hold out eight fingers and you ask the child “How many fingers am I holding up?” If they are able to count and get the answer, that is good. If they say something like “Five and three,” then you will need to continue easing the problems until you can find which numbers they understand and which they do not.

If they are showing that they can produce, you may move ahead a step further. Ask them if you had one more, how many would you have. Remember, it is okay if they count to get the answer or use their fingers; they will develop proficiency at mental math in time. Until then, let them use the strategies they understand to solve the problems. The slowness of the solution should cause them to come up with better strategies.

Subtraction and Addition

When it comes to subtraction and addition, some questions you could ask would be something like, “If I had eight peaches, and someone came and took four away, how many would I have left?” You can do this with or without fingers.

Because addition and subtraction are two sides of the same idea, you can alternate between addition and subtraction such as asking, “If I had 14 ships and someone brought me two more, how many would have?”

Remember — it’s okay for your child to count to get the answer or to use their fingers. It means that they understand how to solve the problem and because of that they understand the language. That’s good.

If they are not proficient, that is okay, too. Go to easier subjects and find out what they understand and do not. Catching them up will be fast and easy if you know you are starting in the right place.


When it comes to evaluating multiplication, and knowing whether or not your child understands the language and concept versus having just memorized their multiplication tables, we use groupings by rows or collections.

You may arrange six rows of seven items and ask “How many are there?” If your child is counting to get the answer and they’ve memorized their times tables, then this may be an indication of a problem. You may quickly be able to catch them up if you say something like “What is 6 times 7?” after they count to answer.

A lot of times, when students who have memorized their multiplication tables make this real-life connection of what multiplication actually means, they’re able to get the concept. They glide through multiplication moving forward.

Fractions, Decimals and Percentages

These three math topics are all representations of proportionality. Students that are having issues understanding the idea of proportionality will have issues with all three.

They are best evaluated visually. The easiest way to understand proportionality is through fractions and the best way to do this in real life is through measurements — anything that breaks out a measuring cup, ruler, or measuring tape. By working with your student on a project like this, you will quickly see what they understand and do not. Where they do not understand, take note and back off; where they do understand, you may give them more challenging questions.

When it comes to fractions, it’s important for children to understand that fractions, decimals and percentages are all representations of the same idea: proportionality. It’s just a quirk of human language that we’ve agreed upon these three different ways to represent the same idea. No one way is more correct than another. Telling a student this is important. It is often overlooked in the classroom and ends up contributing to anxiety around these topics.

What to Do When Your Child Doesn’t Understand

What can you do if you’re working with a student, but you’re seeing that they don’t understand something? It’s pretty simple, actually.

Let them answer the question incorrectly. Ask them why they think it is the correct answer. Based on their reasoning, you should be able to see exactly what the child does not understand and then give them a hint that allows them to have that “aha” moment or clarify the idea that is misunderstood.

Related: Answers to Your Top Questions About Math Anxiety

This is the process we encourage our parents to use when working with their child in the Elephant Learning app. Every parent we have spoken to that has used the above advice has been able to coach their child into understanding. For example, one parent discovered that her daughter thought “older” meant “taller” and that was causing the issue!

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It’s very important not to get frustrated if your child does not understand a concept. This is where Elephant Learning really excels. We help you find your student’s level without the exhaustion. The computer has infinite patience.

Please don’t keep pounding away at the same concepts in the same manner if your child isn’t getting it. Sometimes it is best to take a break. Go online and see how other people are teaching these concepts; you can even look at how the Elephant Learning app is teaching a concept and replicate our methods.

Building a Solid Math Foundation

Evaluating your child’s math skills is so much more than just giving them a math sheet filled with problems, or looking at how well they’re doing in class. It’s all about ensuring they have a strong math foundation that holds up over time as they move into harder and harder concepts. Evaluating their comprehension based on the language surrounding math makes building this foundation that much easier.

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