- The Washington Times - Sunday, October 23, 2005

My son has been dissatisfied with his algebra text, so he decided to do some research on other books. Searching the Internet, he printed out information on various books that seemed interesting. Instead of choosing one to buy, he got the idea of taking the list to our local library and checking to see if any of the books were available there.

Lo and behold, he came home with a half-dozen of the books on his list.

I have spent the last few days going through these books. They represent some interesting approaches, which may be helpful for some families looking for better ways to study algebra.

• “Dr. Math Explains Algebra,” produced by the Math Forum Drexel University (John Wiley & Sons, 2004), uses cartoons and chatty “letters” between fictional students and “Dr. Math” to explain the various concepts and methods. The cartoon-character “students” illustrate ideas such as the slope of a line by skiing on an ascending or descending mountainside. Or, they show how the squares of consecutive numbers follow a visual pattern. Or they show how a quadratic equation can be visualized as a square, divided into different areas represented by the terms of that equation.

I think this is a good book for visual learners, and for those who are mesmerized by the seemingly endless strings of letters and numbers that most math texts seem to be.

• “Painless Algebra,” by Lynette Long (Barron’s Educational Series, 1998), also uses illustrations, but not of the math concepts themselves, just as an interesting visual element to attract the eye to a certain bit of text. It also makes use of mnemonics to remember certain operations.

• “Practical Algebra, A Self-Teaching Guide,” by Peter Selby and Steve Slavin (John Wiley & Sons, 1991), is a bit more math-ish in that it uses a lot more of the traditional vocabulary (anyone remember what the abscissa and ordinate are?). Yet it’s a very clearly explained book, and it has one feature I found very attractive: It invites the student to work right on the pages, workbook style, and is a more hands-on way of learning. I felt this was one of the best and clearest books, neither talking down to the student, nor introducing distractive elements.

• “Algebra, The Easy Way,” by Douglas Downing (Barron’s Educational Series, 1996), uses a storytelling approach, using an ongoing tale of the struggles of a royal bookkeeper in the fictional kingdom of Carmorra to introduce algebraic concepts and methods. The story is pretty involved, which might be good for learners who love reading, but may be distracting for students who want it simple and to the point. Illustrations are used cleverly, both to carry on the story and to depict the math concepts. Through the story, many advanced concepts are introduced in a fun and memorable way. The publishers boldly promise to refund the book’s purchase price if it doesn’t help the student improve his or her grades in 30 days.

The important question in choosing any textbook or workbook is, “Does this fit the student’s learning style?” If your child loves stories, find a book that uses narrative and characters to explain the concepts. If they are “example” learners, a workbook approach usually is best. And if they are visual learners, a book that uses lots of diagrams, graphs and illustrations probably will be most useful.

Many parents are nervous about teaching math because they had bad experiences in their own math education. I have found that home-schooling gives us a second chance to approach math, and to experience it in a positive way, thanks to innovative books and tools.

You may find yourself getting excited, along with your child, as you “get it” after years of assuming, “I’m poor in math.” It’s great to feel that sense of success, no matter what age we are. And there’s a double lesson in it for our children — when they see us struggle to grasp something and then find the answer, they feel a sort of learners’ camaraderie with us as a fellow explorer. It’s a different experience than that of the student feeling ignorant and helpless before the all-knowing instructor.

Good tools will help both the parent and the student in the learning process. I hope these books give you a starting point in finding the best tools for your family.

Kate Tsubata, a home-schooling mother of three, is a free-lance writer who lives in Maryland.