Learning in the Zone: Help with Math and Reading

There is a fancy term used by educators called the zone of proximal development. We have to learn about this and a bunch of other things to be licensed. 

It is a concept mainly developed by Lev Vygotsky . 

I think this is worth mentioning to parents because it could have come in handy for me when my kids were younger, and while trying to help one with severe dyslexia. 

To understand this idea, you just need to know the story of the three bears, or even shoe shopping. Too big, too small, or just right. Goldilocks, in my opinion, was a pretty smart girl. She knew she shouldn’t settle for things that didn’t fit, and any parent can tell you the same concept applies to shoes. It also applies to learning. If something is too hard, a child will shut down and not learn anything. If it’s too easy, it’s merely a waste of time. 

Because learning time is precious and takes a lot of work to even get your child ready to learn, you don’t want to waste time on something that isn’t helping them. But how do you know? How do you know if your child is learning something, if their teacher has assigned something they actually need, and it’s worth all the effort it took you as a parent to get them working on it? 

I will share a few simple strategies to make sure the work assigned to your child fits like a pair of great shoes, so they can run with it. See what I did there. Not sure it worked, but you get the idea. 

During lessons and assignments:

  1. Watch to make sure your child is following along. If they look lost, stop and ask what they are learning or doing. If they are unable to explain the basics, then it’s too hard. 
  2. If a child can whip through an assignment without any instruction, and do a great job, it’s too easy. The purpose of an assignment should be to practice something new. 
  3. Children should be able to successfully complete assignments after participating in an effective lesson. If they can already do all of it, it’s simply a waste of time, and if they cannot do it at all, they haven’t learned enough. 

What to do when it doesn’t fit:

No one wants to run around in a pair of shoes that don’t fit, it would be painful and slow you down. The same goes for schoolwork.

  1. The first thing I would suggest would be to contact your child’s teacher. One of my biggest frustrations while teaching online fourth grade, was that I could not watch my student’s reaction to assignments. So, I had to rely on parents to tell me how it went. Some parents would let me know, and I gladly adapted to my students’ needs. Some parents just ignored it, or worse, did the child’s work for them. Not judging them, but children can’t learn in those circumstances. 
  2. I hope you are able to resolve things with your child’s teacher, by either asking for additional instruction, or more of a challenge. Please be patient and polite as teaching online is really difficult. However, if your concerns are repeatedly ignored and it’s hurting your child, a polite note to administration will usually get the job done. Do keep it civil and know that most educators are really working hard and doing their best. But, your child has to come first. 
  3. There are things you can do to support your child. You can offer enriching challenges if the work is too easy, and you can help tutor your child if they struggle. I could write novels on how to do these things, but for now will follow this article with a simple list of enriching and reteaching strategies.

Reteaching Strategies: 


If your child is struggling or failing to learn a new concept in math, likely, they haven’t built up enough of a foundation to grow. The shoe doesn’t fit yet. As a teacher, I had to do a little detective work to find out what concept my students had missed and was holding them back. 

Frequently, for elementary age students it was simple math facts. They hadn’t completely memorized their addition, subtraction, multiplication or division facts. If a child knows their facts, but cannot automatically recall them, trying to process get those right as they learn something more difficult, like long division will slow them down to the point that they get lost in the steps and can’t move forward.

An easy way to test this is to take a set of flash cards and see if your child can come up with accurate answers in about three seconds or less. If they cannot, do NOT get upset with them. Be supportive, even tell them the correct answer so their brain can practice the right answer. Then, patiently go through flash cards and drills until they have them all memorized to the point of automaticity. If they get it wrong, just give them the answer, but have them keep practicing until they can correctly give you the answer every time. 

NOTE: Some kids can memorize things like this relatively quickly, while others will take a long time. This is normal. If your child does take a long time, it is essential that you are patient, encouraging, and praise hard work. 

For kids in upper grades and even through high school, you still want to quickly make sure they can do their facts automatically. If not, make them practice until they do. Usually, the problem in higher level math is that they didn’t truly master lower level concepts and need to review in order to move forward. Making sure your child can quickly and accurately perform long multiplication and division is a good place to start, then make sure they can multiply, divide, add, and subtract fractions and decimals easily. Next, make sure they understand the basic foundations of geometry. 

Hold up! 

Question: How on earth are you supposed to do that? Isn’t that their teacher’s job? 

Answer: I will show you, and maybe or maybe not, it really depends on the situation. But parents can help so why not give your child the advantage?

First off: Go cheap (or free) and easy. I have a website that I absolutely love. Yes, Rob from Math Antics,  you’re getting free advertising. You deserve it. I have shared a lot of the videos on mathantics.com with my students. Now, I have purchased a subscription because, as a teacher, I like the additional materials. However, you can watch the videos for free. So awesome. Then you can create a few problems of your own to test your child or hop on a website like math-drills.com to print off a few and make sure your child gets the concepts. Math-drills is cool, because it has free worksheets on pretty much everything, and there are answer pages as whois ell. Yay for free! 

I will give you a basic list of concepts in order (because concepts build in each other) that your child should have mastered, but do be flexible and pay attention to their needs. 

Basic Concepts in order:


Writing numbers

Showing which number goes with specific amounts (like 5 goes with fives apples)

Identifying basic shapes

Adding and subtracting by counting.

Memorizing addition facts 

Memorizing subtraction facts

Knowing what multiplication and division are

Memorizing multiplication and division facts. 

Understanding a 10 base system (how we go from 10 to 100 to 1,000) etc. 

Long multiplication by one number, like 6×482

Long division by one number like 482 divided by 6

Identifying basic fractions and being able to reduce/simplify them. 

Simple algebra—using a letter in a problem rather than a number. Example a+8=15, so what is a? 

Long multiplication like 345 x 4395

Long division like 4395 divided by 345

Multiply and divide fractions 

Multiply and divide decimals

Add and subtract fractions

Add and subtract decimals

Find geometric measurements: area, perimeter, and volume of parallelograms and triangles. 

Basic algebra 

Basic geometry

Basic statistics

Higher level (high school) math

Multiplication Flash Cards
Math Flash Cards: Multiply, Divide, Add, and Subtract
I am including this workbook, because third grade is a pretty critical year for foundations. Additionally, these workbooks are up-to-date with current teaching practices, so parents can look at them too, to not be confused by the new methods. Use these to help beat the saying, “They changed math.” But, that’s okay, you got this.
This. These are the foundational skills your child will need for higher level math. Get these down and they have a much better chance at success!

I’ve had kids that have either naturally picked up on math and didn’t need extra help, and kids that found high school math overwhelming. Being the crazy person I am, I decided to relearn all of it to help my struggling children. Now, you don’t have to do this, but I can tell you what I did, and you can use it to help your struggling student. I watched and worked through the math on Khan Academy. It’s awesome and free, and if I ever have extra money, I will donate to them. You can go to khanacademy.org and set up an account for your child. If they can’t do the math at their current grade level, go backward and start with what they can do, then have them work through it and continue.

Here’s what I recommend if you really want to help your child be a math master. Get them on Khan Academy when they are young and have them continue to work through it throughout their education and use it alongside their regular education. They can even use it through college. It’s like having a free math tutor for life, seriously if I ever have money, I’m donating to them. 


This can be more complex than math but is arguably the most important thing your child will learn in school. The very best thing a parent can do is simple. Read to your child, and help them love reading. Children, even those with learning disabilities can learn to read and read well. But, it may take a bit more work. As a parent, I highly encourage you to help your child enjoy reading. Help them see that it is worth the effort. If reading is simply a difficult task that they are required to master to please someone else, they will never get to be very good at it, and they will resent those that are pushing it on them. 

So, my very first recommendation for parents of struggling readers is to help them enjoy it. 

For younger children, the book: Teach Your Child to Read is an excellent resource. They focus on phonics and blending words and slowly move up in difficulty levels. We used a similar strategy for my son with dyslexia, and while he has a way to go still with writing, he is an excellent reader and has a good level of comprehension. 

Older children: you can still read to them, and it can be a fantastic bonding experience. I read the entire Serafina, Wings of Fire, Menagerie, and other series aloud to my children. Even kids in upper grades love being read to, and they will pick up the habit and do it on their own. Make it fun! 

I will include a list of book links that you can purchase on Amazon, physical or Kindle, and note that when you use our links, we do get a small percentage, and part is donated to children’s charities. As a brand new site, we are figuring it out, but I want to make sure this is all about helping kids. Additionally, reading can be absolutely free. Go to the library and get a bunch of books, but make sure you have a bin or basket that they have to be returned to when not being read, or you’ll end up paying fees for missing and late books. If you’re wondering how I learned this, yes, it was the hard way. 

Okay, here are some strategies you can use while reading to your child and making it fun. Use a bookmark or ruler to show which line you are on and require that your child follows along with you. Occasionally pause and have your child read the word you are on, then you will know for sure they are following with you. If they cannot read the word, use some word strategies to sound it out with them, and help them read it. Then, re-read the sentence to help make sure it makes sense. When your child gets better at reading, occasionally pause and have them read an entire sentence, then paragraph, and then page aloud to you. Reading aloud is important because it helps the child develop fluency, which is essential for comprehension. But, don’t make them read aloud all the time. When a child is reading for pleasure, they can read silently. 

Be patient and praise effort. 

If you go to this link, then click on “Building Readers: A Parent’s Guide,” you will find an excellent FREE ebook/PDF full of ways to help your https://www.schools.utah.gov/curr/dyad?mid=1169&tid=1 child with reading.
You can also click on this link above to find FREE sight word lists to work on flashcards with your child and word sounds.
This is THE book to get if you want to teach your child to read at home.
My students love this series. It is good for BOYS and reluctant readers.
Another very poplular series to get those boys reading.
Fun for boys (and girls). It just tends to be harder to get boys into book series. Though this is definitely not the rule, just what we see in classrooms as teachers.
Cute and fun for younger readers. My second/third grader loved it.
These are an upper middle-grade favorite! Series are great, because they get your child reading multiple books. I like to download a free sample onto Kindle sometimes to see if my child liks the books. Then I know whether or not to invest in the series. Lots of times though, they have already be introduced to them at school or by friends and know they like them.
I have had a lot of parents that are surprised that I will recommend (appropriate-always check) graphic novels. But, if you have a reluctant reader graphic novels can be one of the best ways to help your child LOVE reading. If they LOVE it, they will do it, even if it is a challenge. Dog Man–popular stuff.
These are personal favorites of mine.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: