‘Times Tables’ & ‘Word Banks’

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On Canada’s 150th Birthday, friends and I gathered at a local dining spot to eat from a special, patriotic menu (including, naturally, poutine and butter tarts), complemented by a domestic beverage or two. The offerings proved to be delish.

When the time came to settle the bill, we decided to ‘split the damage’, and our pleasant young server watched in wonderment as our minds calculated fractions and individual contributions, including a healthy tip.

“I could never do that,” she marveled, “I’d definitely need a calculator. Anyone need a ‘machine’?” (for debit or credit cards). Our group reached for bills and coins.

The server’s reaction prompted a discussion about the current state of education and the place (or displacement) of what we characterized as ‘fundamentals’.

Yes, fundamentals. As a tutor, I know that they’re still around, yet I wonder just how much of a role the basic building blocks (as I tend to term arithmetic and grammar and vocabulary) have in current education. I encounter middle school students who confess to a fair degree of vagueness about basic numerical calculation (that is, in your head) and limited acquaintance with words beyond an early elementary school level. And I’m likely attending the student, because the parents came to recognize that their child (even children) were in need of specific training and reinforcement of these fundamentals.

Let me turn to English (and language in general), for a moment. Among the first questions I ask a student at our initial meeting is, “OK. Can you tell me how you make an omelette (‘spell check’, ugh, just invited me to spell it ‘omelet’)?” “Sure, with eggs.” (my students do know their food). “OK. Can you tell me, then, what you use to write a story?” Brief pause. “Uh, words?”

Yes, WORDS. I proceed to provide a verbal thumbnail about why a ‘word bank’ (with a wide variety of vocabulary) is necessary to build, and fortunate in life to have. In my tutoring experience, word banks are a ‘best seller’, and I have found certain of my ‘trade secrets’ to be extremely effective in opening a student’s ‘depository’.

 Times tables and word building, in my view, are invaluable exercises designed to engage, stimulate, and train young minds and memories, plus build self-reliance.

Will our education systems go well beyond stressing the importance of these fundamentals? In some settings, maybe. Rest assured, however, that Book Smart Tutors in Canada’s major cities (VancouverCalgaryToronto) will reinforce the basic building blocks, after having taken the time to assess a student’s level of proficiency in Math, English, and other subjects, for the purpose of curing weaknesses and augmenting strengths.

One of the basic reasons why I tutor is my passion that young learners be solidly grounded in the fundamentals. It’s an investment that undeniably is capable of huge returns.

(Robert MacFarlane is a graduate of Princeton University, and he has been associated with Book Smart Tutors for several years, tutoring in English and related subjects.)

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