Onomatophobia

I’m Jamie’s wife.  You may or may not know me, but I’m a stay home mom of four kids ages 5 months – 7 years.  I studied physics and education in college (I have bachelor degrees in both).  I’m considered to be a math and science nerd by most people I meet.

Throughout the years I’ve noticed that Algebra, Physics, Chemistry and Calculus are all words that seem to put fear into the heart of everyone.  Everyone, it seems, except us few whom the world labels as “smart” while secretly thinking that we have to be some sort of masochist to want to study and perhaps even enjoy those subjects.

A few months ago I went somewhere with a couple of friends.  One is an elementary school teacher, the other a stay home mom of four kids, like me.  The school teacher mentioned that she had made some progress in math with one of her students and was really excited about it.  She had explained that she used a “tricky” story problem and the student got the answer right.  The conversation then turned as she mentioned that even though this student was in fifth grade, the math program at the school was beginning to introduce algebra to the students.  I responded, “Yeah, we did too.” with the intent of pointing out to them what kinds of things that we did that qualify as algebra.  But, I was sitting in the back seat and they didn’t hear me.  My friends went on to discuss why introducing algebra in the fifth grade was too early, mostly because it was too hard for a fifth grader and then onto the ups and downs of their math educations compared that of children now, while I sat back to contemplate a main theme typical of those kinds of conversations, onomatophobia, the fear of a word in this case algebra, or at the very least a misunderstanding of what the word means.

Chances are that you did some Algebra in elementary school.  Remember questions like this:

10 + ___ = 14?

Yeah, those kinds of questions are essentially algebra, except that in algebra you would write it like this:

10 + x = 14

and we teach you all sort of algorithms and make it seem  harder than it really is to find out what x is, but that you need to know when things do get more complicated.  Fifth graders don’t need to think about those algorithms, but thinking about how one would figure out what needs to go in the blank is great preparation for further algebra study and something that most kids can get.

My first grader fills in charts like this:

1 + 9 = 10

2 + 8 = 10

3 + 7 = 10

4 + 6 = 10

5 + 5 = 10

Which in algebra, we would express in algebra as y + x = 10.   Then we would graph it so we could also see that 5.5 + 4.5 = 10 too.  Most first graders haven’t grasped the concept of fractions and decimals, so we use whole numbers with them to build the chart and skip the graphing.  But, it helps them see that we can get to the number 10 in different ways, so when y +x = 10 is introduced and similar charts are used, using this method of stating it is a small step from what they originally learned.

The other thing that I find very interesting is that the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics (NCTM) encourages teachers to teach algebra from Pre-Kindergarten.  Here’s the list of things that qualify as algebra and when they recommend they should be taught.

Sorting and pattern recognition, something my 5 year old daughter does a lot of, is an algebraic skill.  She doesn’t know that, and I bet she wouldn’t care if I told her.

Elementary school children don’t know to be afraid of algebra, we teach that to them.  They don’t know that skills that they are learning are considered algebraic skills.  But, once that book with “Algebra” written across it in big bold letters is placed in front of them sometime in middle or high school, they hyperventilate.  By then they have caught on to the social bias.  I have tutored and taught many young people that I’m pretty sure could have done well in their math or science classes if they hadn’t been socially-induced onomatophobes.

So what is to be done?  How do we overcome this societal onomatophobia?

Do some fun math and science with your kids, even if you don’t like it.  Get excited about it, even if you have to fake it. If you don’t know how, visit your local library, there are tons of books there with fun math things to do and simple experiments to do at home with household items.  Approach the words pre-Algebra and Algebra with interest.  Talk to them about what they are learning in math.  Learn about how these subjects affect your daily life.  If you don’t understand, still act interested.

Be careful with what you say.  Say things like “Math was hard for me, but I learned quite a bit.” or “I didn’t do so well in algebra, but you should work hard and learn as much as you can.”  Instead of “Math is hard.” or “I don’t understand why you have to take so much math anyway.”  (These are both things that I’ve heard out of parent’s mouths.  Is it no wonder as a teacher that you hear the same thing from the students?).  There are so many subtle social cues that most kids pick up on that and push math and science to the background for them, simply because they fear that it is hard and that they will fail.

Most Americans are functionally illiterate when it comes to math and science, and for me I find that unfortunate, as unfortunate as the fact that people graduate from high school never having read Shakespeare (another word that induces onomatophobia).