More Math Apps for iPad: Singapore Math and Common Core

Saturday, July 6th, 2013

It’s been a while since my last post on iPad apps, and in the meantime a lot has happened. For one thing, I have downloaded and tried quite a number of math apps. I’m going to start a round-up of some of the most useful apps as I have time.

number bondsFirst up: exciting news! The Number Bond software, that I lamented being only on Mac or PC for so long, is now ported to iOS. As far as I can tell, having downloaded only the addition/subtraction version, it’s pretty much exactly the same as the computer version.

This has its pros and cons. Pros: the familiar interface, its simplicity, and the fact that it does one thing – it teaches number bonds at different levels. Cons: In light of the outstanding, more powerful software out there, it takes advantage of very few of these features. For example, it is not adaptive, meaning the difficulty does not change with the user’s proficiency. It also does not save user data, something the better educational software is doing (as I’ll discuss later), even emailing it weekly to the parent or teacher if desired. It also has a few bugs to iron out, which I’m sure will happen soon.

So would I recommend it? Yes, as a practice tool for a child at home or as a station in the classroom – but I would love to see it get more developer attention and become more powerful.

Download Number Bonds: Addition & Subtraction to 99

Next up: AL Abacus

For anyone teaching/homeschooling with Singapore Math or a Common Core curriculum, such as Eureka Math, or working with a child with a math learning disability, you will find  that the Slavonic Abacus, or Rekenrek, is incredibly useful for teaching number sense and place value. It breaks down numbers into groups of five and ten, which are easy to manipulate mentally, not least because our hands are right in front of us since we are in the womb, with five fingers each (otherwise known as digits!). While having the concrete manipulative is ideal for sensory feedback, sometimes teachers want to project the abacus to a group, or show a demonstration to a small group. This is where the iPad version, AL Abacus, comes in.

AL Abacus to 100This app is a Slavonic Abacus with two modes. The first is the side with numbers to 100. To access this side, hold the abacus in landscape (horizontal) mode. When all the beads are to the right, it is like pressing “C” (or Clear) on a calculator. To reset all the beads, just tilt the iPad to the left – exactly like on a real abacus. Just slide single or groups of beads to the left to add, subtract, multiply, or divide within 100.

AL Abacus to 1000sThe second side is accessed by turning the iPad to portrait, or vertical, orientation. In this mode, you can work with numbers to 1000, with different columns of beads representing the different place values. This can be a very powerful, easy tool for computing whole numbers through the thousands. To reset the beads, just lift the iPad up, and the beads all fall to the bottom.

Incidentally, this second side was designed by Dr. Joan Cotter, who did her doctoral dissertation using it. Her website, with additional resources, including how to use the AL Abacus, is

This is an almost perfect representation of a physical version of the abacus. There are only two things missing, in my view: the sound of the beads clicking together, which would be great sensory feedback.

Download AL Abacus – Activities for Learning, Inc.

Since this tool is new to many people, here are some other resources besides just the iPad version.

Do you have other ideas or resources for teaching number bonds or using the Rekenrek? Post them in the comments!

Let’s Write a Comic!

Saturday, July 6th, 2013

Would you like a fun summer writing project to do with your child? Why not create a comic?comic

Comics and graphic novels are legitimate forms of art and writing, and for visual people, they can be more accessible or relatable. And they require thought and good design to be interesting.

This spring, a girl I’ve been tutoring in writing for years made one with my help. First, we wrote the storyboard. Then we laid it out in ComicBook!, an iPad app, with dialogue embedded in bubbles we would edit later to fit the photos. Finally, we took the photos to fit the storyline, editing them with effects to make them look like a comic book.

Not only was the student completely engaged every step of the way, but her younger brother was almost addicted to the process. If we didn’t produce a page that week, he pestered her all week until our next session.

We completed the comic in our last session of the summer, and her parents agreed to let me post it here for your enjoyment. Please leave a comment if you would like to know more about the process, or if you create one of your own!

View or download The Danger of Being Bored! here (PDF, ~9 MB).

Review and Using Khan Academy Tools

Friday, March 25th, 2011


I’m so inspired about a new tool to enhance math education. A friend sent me the link to a TED talk (embedded at the bottom of this post) showing the evolution of the Khan Academy into something truly useful for – well, for just about anybody.

I had come across the Khan videos some time ago, and I thought they were useful and well designed to teach more advanced concepts. Since they were not necessarily pertinent to my work, though, I didn’t return to them.

Then I saw this video, and how the Khan Academy has evolved, and I got excited. I set up accounts for several of my tutoring students and asked them to try the site while I checked their previous work, a few minutes of what used to be down time for them. Right there, I have increased the learning efficiency of my tutoring time.

The first student I set up, a fifth-grade girl, got happily into the site right away. When she discovered you could earn badges for different accomplishments, that sold her – and not only that, but she knew that her seven-year-old brother would like the site too.

For teachers, tutors, parents, etc., a wonderful feature is to sign up as a coach and have your student(s) or child(ren) add you as a coach. I think they can even add more than one coach, so both a teacher and a parent coach the same student, for example.

After only using the site for two days, I can already see the progress my students are making, as well as areas in which they are struggling. This will allow me to focus my next session with them better and help them master the skills they need, as well as move more quickly past the ones they have mastered.

The site design is excellent, with only a few minor glitches. Having looked at many educational websites, I can say that this is a rare find. To set up an account, one needs either a Google or a Facebook account. This can be a hurdle in itself; you have to be 18 or older to have a Google account, so for children, they need to either lie about their birth year or use a parent’s account. I did run into this problem in setting up student accounts, unfortunately. Facebook has its own pitfalls; while the minimum age is lower (though still too high for most of my students), parents often have more objections to their children joining that site than Google. Khan Academy recommends teachers signing up for Google Apps for Education; I haven’t looked into that option yet, but I may do so, if I qualify as a private tutor.

Once the signing-up hurdle is jumped, the sign-in process is easy and smooth. The site design is clear and simple to navigate, though I wish the “Add a Coach” link would be easier to find.

The real gem for me is the Practice interface. When you click the Practice link, you face a constellation of skills, with Addition 1 at the top. As you demonstrate proficiency, you earn a star in that constellation, and the graphic indicates the suggested skills to work on next.

The interface is simple but effective. When you start to practice, the problems show up as images, and you enter the correct answer in a text box. What’s great about it is that it’s Flash-free, meaning it works on iPhones, iPads, etc., making fun math practice freely, and widely, available.

There was another minor technical glitch, though. At first, I was using my little Asus netbook tablet, and I was thrilled to discover the “Show scratch pad” link. This enables a vertical bar on the left of the screen showing tools like a pencil, eraser, etc. that allow you to write on the screen to do your work, like on a note pad. On the tablet, this was awesome, because my students could use the stylus like a pen to work out their answers right on the screen. I thought the iPad would be as good or better for this, but instead, the touch interface interacts only with the browser controls (like scrolling up and down), and I couldn’t make it register any marks. I’m not sure if this is browser-related, a site programming problem, or an issue in the iOS. It would be great if this could be solved. But it would be ideal for a teacher with an interactive whiteboard as well.

To test the system further, I chose a math topic about which I am very rusty. When I clicked on the subject’s button, I saw a problem that stumped me completely. What to do?

In a classroom situation, a shy student might just sit there and be miserable. But in this tool, right below my choices were the friendly words, “Need help?” and a selection of videos that could show me what I needed to know to succeed in this topic. Better still, I didn’t lose any points by watching the videos – though I would if I asked for a hint.

Are the videos perfect? No, but they’re good, and they have the advantage of being easy to watch over and over until you understand the concept. It would be great if he used more of the methodology in Singapore Math to teach the basic concepts, but we can’t have everything at once. Maybe someday.

One criticism of Singapore Math I have heard is that it needs more skills practice. I think this site is one way for a student to get this practice in a low-key, interactive, fun way. It’s also a terrific tool for students and teachers to improve their learning progress, and for anyone who wants to learn.

By the way, math isn’t the only subject addressed on that site, though I think it’s the first and probably the most thoroughly done. The other subjects, including test prep, are worth visiting too.

What Makes a Good Tutor?

Tuesday, March 15th, 2011


I recently watched a video of a teacher helping a student master tens and ones using ten frames and unifix cubes. While the video showed some of the ways Singapore Math teaches number sense well, a few things about the teaching style struck me. These are pertinent to tutoring because it was a one-on-one situation.
One thing that stood out was that the teacher sometimes gave the answer to the student before the student had a chance to think. This is a mistake that is so easy to make; the tutor knows the answer, and the child doesn’t, so why not tell the student what the answer is? That will help them learn, right?

The thing is, any good teacher or tutor knows that the best learning happens when the child discovers something for him or herself. For most people, if they know the answer, it’s hard to hold themselves back from giving it to the child. But the best teachers guide or lead children to making their own discoveries. If children are moving in the wrong direction, a good tutor guides them toward successful results. This requires a knowledge of why students are making the mistake they are making.

For example, say I’m checking some pre-algebra homework. The problem the student has to solve is 3x + 4 = 73. The student’s answer is x = 25-2/3. From my experience working with students, I will know that the student performed all steps correctly except for adding 4 to 73 instead of subtracting it. Depending on the pattern that shows up with other problems, it could be a fluke, or it could point to the need to review the concept of positive and negative integers, or how to solve an equation with a variable. If it’s the latter, we may need to go back to the concrete stage of learning and work our way back up to the abstract (equation) level. Throughout the process, I will not give the child the answers, but will ask them to justify their answers each step of the way. That way, they are more likely to catch their own mistakes and correct faulty thinking.

Being a good tutor requires more than just mastery of a subject. It requires an understanding of how the subject works, how students learn, what kinds of mistakes they might make and what those mean in terms of review. Most of all, it means being able to guide students toward their own voyages of discovery and learning.


Get every new post delivered to your Inbox

Join other followers: