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Math U See Pre-Algebra Review by Jill Hardy

Math U See

I am not a Math Person. The prospect of reviewing this curriculum was both exciting and daunting to me--exciting because I was intrigued by the idea of using manipulatives at this level of math instruction (something I think makes a ton of sense), and daunting because, well, how would someone like me know if there was something missing?

In order to have a framework with which to evaluate Math U See's Pre-Algebra program, I compared it to a more traditional math text for sixth and seventh grades. By "traditional" I simply mean a textbook-style program that doesn't rely on manipulatives, use a DVD, or utilize the unique Math U See philosophy of "building" problems in order to show mastery. I was also curious whether or not it would be easy for someone who had not used the Math U See program from the beginning to use the pre-algebra curriculum successfully.

Here's what I found. While the traditional text started off with a review of the four basic operations (addition, subtraction, multiplication, and division), fractions, and decimals, the Math U See Pre-Algebra program assumed a thorough knowledge of those skills. If your student is going to jump into the Math U See pre-algebra level after using another program for earlier grades, he or she will need a firm grounding in these concepts (as well as rounding numbers and finding averages). But as for the rest of the content, even as a non-math person, I can't imagine what wasn't covered in this program.

The program consists of the manipulatives, a Teacher's Manual, a student book, a Test Booklet, and a DVD. An Honors program is also available, with additional material for advanced students. The general suggestion is to watch the DVD yourself and then present the lesson to the student, but the Teacher's Manual points to the value of having the student watch the DVD as well. Steve Demme (the program's creator) is a pretty engaging teacher. His commonsense approach makes the material very accessible. If you've ever wished, wistfully, that you could have a great math teacher to help you with this subject, you might just find your answer in these DVDs.)

Math U See's unique approach is a 4-step method: Prepare, Present, Practice, and Proceed. You prepare by watching the video and looking the lesson over. To present the material to the student, you Build (using the manipulative blocks), Write (showing the problem on paper), and Say (verbally explaining) the lesson plan. Practice by using the Lesson Practice sheets in the student book. In addition to at least three practice sheets for every new concept, there are three Systematic Review sheets to keep older concepts fresh in the student's mind. When you're assured of the mastery of the material, you Proceed.

The Honors book was developed to provide additional material for students interested in pursuing math degrees, more enrichment, or just a better understanding of the subject matter. It has 30 lessons and covers such things as Fibonacci patterns, advanced divisibility, and challenging word problems. The instructions caution teachers to make sure that the student has completed the main pre-algebra program before attacking the Honors book. If your student proceeds through the main part of the curriculum quickly, you might be able to squeeze both it and the Honors program into one school year. But for those who are struggling or who just need a little longer to complete each lesson, the Honors portion might work best as a summer enrichment or "bridge" between pre-algebra and algebra.

Now, with all of that in mind, here's my non-math person view of the pros and cons.

I think that using manipulatives to introduce higher math is a great way of easing into the kind of thinking that is required. Being able to see concepts like square numbers could make an enormous difference in a student's understanding. The simplicity and versatility of the manipulatives themselves is impressive; it's easy to visualize the application of them to square numbers, as I mentioned above, but flip them over and they become an ingenious illustration of negative numbers. Anyone who's ever struggled to explain this concept to a confused twelve-year-old would probably weep with joy over having such a simple tool.

A clear Teacher's Manual is always appreciated, but I love having a DVD. If you don't like having kids sit in front of a television for school time, then you have the option of watching it and then teaching the material yourself. On the other hand, if your needs dictated it, a bright student could work with the DVD independently (but supervised, of course).

The practice sheets are nice because they are available for a child who just isn't getting a concept, but they are not all necessary if a child is proceeding without any trouble. This provides a great way to tailor the curriculum to an individual student's needs. The review sheets are another plus. Even though the program is "mastery based," it still offers plenty of review of previous topics.

Really, I didn't encounter too many things that I would consider "Cons." I had a nagging feeling as I looked through it that it was too simple, but I couldn't come up with any specific reason why, other than the fact that many other programs seem to make pre-algebra appear hard. The subject matter is deep, but Math U See just explains it well. The Math U See website has complete course descriptions for each of its levels so that you can see precisely what is going to be covered in each book, if you have concerns.

Also, even though there were at least three practice sheets for each lesson, there were only about twenty problems on each sheet. If you're used to programs that have more problems, you might think that there really isn't that much more opportunity for practice, just the spreading out of the same number of problems. But I think that this approach makes more sense. The division of the problems into three assignments gives you more opportunities to realize trouble spots and focus on problem areas. Then the additional practice sheets allow for another try before moving on.

All in all, I was pleased with Math U See Pre-Algebra and fully intend to use it for my older students. You'd probably be more inclined to like it if you have students who are either resistant to math or are visual learners. But I wouldn't worry about its simplicity, especially with the inclusion of the Honors program.

Math U See has almost convinced me that math just might be simple after all.

Product review by Jill Hardy, The Old Schoolhouse® Magazine, LLC, December 2006