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Encouraging Reading and Math Skills in the Kitchen

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  • Katie Culpepper
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 Using Cooking to Build Literacy and Math Skills

If “Sesame Street,” “Wishbone,” “Arthur” and “Word Girl” have taught me anything, it’s that learning should be fun. But how do activities that some kids think of as work make the transition?

For me, a love of reading and books started with bedtime stories at night and held on for the rest of my life. And learning to count was fun, but after math started getting more complicated, I avoided it like the plague. Words came naturally, but numbers didn’t.

In third grade, suddenly, instead of being excited about school, I was caught up in the “I can’t do its,” “I don’t like its,” “That doesn’t make senses” and “This is really hards.”

My poor Daddy – an engineer and natural math whiz – was at the end of his rope. It’s not that I couldn’t learn how to multiply, comprehend fractions, or master long division. It’s that I was tired of working hard to understand – and I didn’t want to try anymore.

There was crying. There was wheedling. (Mostly on my part.) In class and at home, I nearly made myself sick trying to get out of more math work.

And while nightly supper table homework sessions (which were often frustrating for all parties involved) made progress, other unexpected sources helped me really make sense of math.

 First of all, there were allowances with saving and spending plans, which made several aspects easier. My mom helped extend those lessons with what I call “Shopping Math” whenever we went to the grocery store or the mall. Percentages and simple math? Got it.

But the really tough stuff – the incomprehensible fractions and horrific multiplication and division?  They started come together in delicious way in an unexpected place – the kitchen.

Working out what to do during Mama/daughters baking sessions made the abstract concrete for me. Cooking is engaging, interactive and … at least in my experience … a much, much less intimidating way to build your math and reading skills.

Whether you’re making mixes or whoopie pies from scratch, measuring with whole cups, half cups, tablespoons, teaspoons and ounces gives a visible reference for what those fairly abstract numbers mean. Do you want to double or half a recipe? Guess what? You’re practicing multiplication and division!

At the same time, cooking favorite foods with simple recipes is great place to build literacy skills. A lot of ingredients will be easy to recognize, and reading and repeating recipes together is really interesting if you’re cooking something everyone loves to eat!

By working together to make recipes you all enjoy, you’re killing several birds with one stone. Delicious homemade snacks? Check. Family time? Check. Valuable life skills? Check. Math and literacy skill buiding? Check. And, well, you get the general idea.

Find tips for catering literacy and math lessons for kids PreK through fifth-grade on PBS Parents’ Kitchen Explorer blog! You’ll also find five easy family-friendly recipes and enough links to keep you cooking to your heart’s content.

Also, if your child is suddenly having persistent issues in a particular subject area, don’t be afraid to check for other causes.

I found out my junior year of high school that part of my problem with math was that I’d been fighting dyscalculia all along. (Of course, I found this out after I’d already made it through algebra, geometry, trigonometry, pre-calculus and my PSAT and ACT testing.)

While dyslexia and other learning disabilities are often better recognized, no one realized I had legitimate problem until my chemistry teacher pulled me aside to ask if I’d ever been tested. He noticed that I was regularly losing points on my exams, not because I didn’t understand how to work the equations, but because I constantly inverted numbers in problems. If I didn’t have verbal or pictorial clues that made me aware I’d changed the numbers’ positions, I’d never realize my mistake.

If I’d known about my issues sooner, I could have taken other steps to make learning easier – and possibly have been given extended time to complete the math and science portions of my college entrance exams.

Similarly, a family friend made it to second grade before his mother realized his poor performance in school was linked to his poor eyesight. Our friend memorized stories, followed other kids’ leads on eye exams, and cut up in class to cover up the fact that he often couldn’t see the words well enough to read out loud in class. Once he got glasses, his grades improved dramatically, although he had to catch up on a lot of back work.

If you’re concerned that your kiddo needs more than a lightbulb moment to boost his or her math or literacy skills, get in touch with your doctor or school counselor. Arkansas Children’s Hospital also provides great information and a list of resources for health professionals.

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