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As Long as We Remember...

September 1, 2009

What to Expect in 6th Grade Math

Nick Diaz

Yesterday you were counting pennies, leaves, and gold stars with your first grader. Now he or she is ready, you hope, to tackle sixth grade math. It's a shock to lots of parents – and children, too.


Here’s the good news: Academic standards are designed to prepare children grade-by-grade and step-by-step. If your child has been working steadily through elementary school, sixth grade math will be just one more manageable step. In fact, studies show that when math is well taught, students this age just love it – after all, it’s a way to discover sense and pattern in the world, and feel pretty darn smart in the process.


So, what can you expect? Since states are allowed to choose their own standards under No Child Left Behind, there may be some variation. For specific details, remember to consult your state’s academic standards on the department of education website. It’s also wise to ask your school to show you its frameworks and texts, so that you can see exactly how the standards will be covered during the year.


In general, however, you can expect these themes in sixth grade math:


What should my child already know?


As a general rule, teachers hope that by the end of fifth grade students will have a very solid working knowledge of all four “operations” – addition, subtraction, multiplication, and division – along with fractions, simple percentages, decimals, and basic graphing. At a minimum, they should also know about basic formulas for perimeter and area, as well as recognize the basic geometrical shapes.


What should my child learn in this grade?


Number Sense: This builds directly on the basic skills of elementary school – addition, subtraction, multiplication, division, fractions, and decimals – but now more complex. Talk about these computations with your child: How does a fraction translate into decimals? Why do we call multiplication and division “inverse operations?” This is also the time when many teachers start to introduce negative numbers, which can be tricky. You can help with real-life situations, like “Yes, you can borrow $10 from me to afford that toy, but that means your account will go down to negative $10.” This would be a good time to introduce your child to the trillion-dollar deficit.


Algebra: Once upon a time this topic was covered in ninth grade. Nowadays, more and more states are urging schools to teach beginning algebra to all eighth graders to leave more time in high school for advanced topics. So, don’t be shocked: in sixth grade, many schools now teach kids basic ideas of algebra. Try talking with your child in real life terms. For example, “We have a five mile trip to the store for those cool shoes you want. We’ll travel about fifteen miles an hour. How fast will we get there?” Your child’s mind may be on shoes, but the thinking process is algebraic.


Geometry: Angles, quadrilaterals, surface area, volume? Bring it on. Don’t be surprised to see your sixth grader finding the surface area of a three-dimensional shape. For many students, geometrical thinking is a highlight of middle school math. This part of the curriculum easily lends itself to hands-on exploration, and ties beautifully with art as well.


English? You bet! Students must learn to respect words in mathematics. This is the time for them to apply their “micro-reading” skills, where each word and phrase is important. Thorough knowledge and understanding of geometric terms and their narrowest, technical applications – this is what sixth graders must learn to grasp and demonstrate.


One of my favorite all-time sayings in class: “Welcome to Mr. Diaz’s reading class.” Yes, Mr. Diaz is a reading teacher!


Statistics and Probability: At this stage students will see simple problems in coin tossing, die rolling, etc. Sports nuts will be truly delighted by natural ties to professional ballgames. What is the probability that a basketball player, with a 70% foul-shooting percentage, will make two consecutive shots from the foul line? Probability is my favorite topic in the sixth-grade program; unfortunately, this is not the case for many middle school math teachers. Wonder why our students keep telling us they don’t like probability?


By the way, the answer is 49/100, practically half the time.


Reasoning, Problem Solving, and Connections: For math teachers, these are really the highest goals of mathematics education. Is it important to get the “right” answer to a problem? Goodness, yes! It’s almost as crucial is to ensure that students know that they can think their way to that answer – sometimes two or three different ways – again and again.


Sound challenging? Math teachers hope so…but they also work hard to make it achievable, too. The world around us is packed with math, whether it’s figuring tax, making budgets, determining spending, and simply predicting probable outcomes. This is a perfect time for your young citizen to put these lessons together. With your steady support, you may be amazed by what your child is ready to take on.


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