Sam’s progress with learning mathematics
Sam is 18 years old and has Down syndrome. He achieved a grade in the standard assessment of mathematics (GCSE) at 16 years of age. This paper describes the part played in his success in school by the Kumon method of teaching mathematics, identifies the benefits of the small steps and lots of practice built in to the method and illustrates the way Sam applied his Kumon learning in school.
Haslam L. Sam’s progress with learning mathematics. Down Syndrome Research and Practice. 2007;12(1);32-33.
Sam is now 18 and, since September 2006, has attended Foxes Academy in
Minehead in south west England. Foxes Academy is a training hotel and catering
college that teaches young people with learning disabilities. Until Sam was
16, he attended Altwood Church of England Comprehensive School in Maidenhead
where he "passed" GCSE mathematics with Grade F. Incidentally, he also "passed"
7 other subjects getting grades of E or F but maths was probably his greatest
achievement. So how did all this come about for a student with Down syndrome?
Sam in Minehead, when visited by his girlfriend
of the last 2 years, Judith
Well Sam started at his local mainstream school aged 5 and it soon became
apparent that maths was not going to be his strongest subject. (Actually he was
not a great reader either despite having followed early reading advice since he
was 6 months old.) His cousins are half Japanese and virtually all Japanese
pupils do Kumon maths after school so like them, aged 6, Sam began Kumon.
For those who do not know, "At the heart of the Kumon method of learning is the
idea that each individual child can reach his or her potential, if given the
right support and conditions. Kumon's programmes aim to increase self-confidence
and empower students with the skills to learn for themselves."
Small steps and practice
Basically that means intensive (daily) practice of written mathematical "sums".
It sounds tedious and boring and to a certain extent it is. However, the
achievements are worthwhile and the improvement in self esteem is huge. As the
work is graded in such small steps, it is possible to achieve again and again.
Each child starts at the simplest level (for Sam this was learning to count and
then count on from any given number eventually up to 100) and pupils are
supposed to complete a set number of sheets of work each day, each sheet of
about 10 – 20 questions practising the same skill. The work is graded in the
tiniest possible steps and Sam's Kumon instructor (who was not a trained
teacher) allowed us to repeat the steps as often as I felt necessary. Children
attend a Kumon centre once a week and are supposed to work on that day's task
unaided although I generally accompanied Sam. There is no doubt that the method
is very tedious and that our patience was sorely tested at times. Work has to be
completed every day and I mean every day. Sam has a sister 14 months younger and
a brother 2 years younger so they all ended up doing Kumon. It must be admitted
that I was the person who paced Sam's work – it is supposed to take 10 minutes
but sometimes took up to half an hour depending on his frame of mind. As many
parents will know, many youngsters can be extremely stubborn at times and Sam is
However, Sam's Kumon instructor was very flexible and Sam gradually learned,
over the next 4 years, how to count, add up, subtract and multiply (even long
multiplication) thousands, hundreds, tens and units. He never mastered division
and still has not done so. We did not reach the fraction section although I know
of two other children with Down syndrome who have continued with the programme
and can do fractions as well.
A teaching programme that emphasises a step-by-step approach, building on
success and learning through practice.
General Certificate of Secondary Education, graded A* to G, the subject based
examinations pupils normally take at the end of Key Stage 4, age 16.
I am a qualified primary teacher and in many ways this method of old fashioned
pages of "sums" flies in the face of all good educational practice in that there
is no physical manipulation of objects involved. No "concrete to abstract" ideas
but, in a way, that is why it succeeds. Sam was neither distracted nor confused
by trying to extrapolate abstract from concrete. He learned to count and
manipulate numbers and retained that skill and could apply it to real situations
when they arose. e.g. "You have 12p, how much more do you need to buy something
costing 19p?" He could count on from 12p yet Kumon does not include work on
money – why would it? It is the same skill as manipulating any numbers. At the
end of each session, children do have the opportunity to place 100 magnetic
numbers on a magnetic number board. This helps them understand numbers, odd and
even and other concepts. This is a timed activity and although there is no
obvious aim in the activity, it can be what you make it. We bought a number
board for practice at home.
We stopped going to Kumon soon after starting secondary school because of the
demands of homework, but we still have a number of extra sheets and
occasionally, Sam still completes some of these. At secondary school, he
astonished the history staff in being able to calculate the success of medieval
monarchs using a tally chart – the same skill as he learned at Kumon but Kumon
did not do tally charts.
The Kumon methodology did not require any different input from the school. Sam's
primary teachers saw a great improvement in his achievement and reduced the
amount of physical materials they used with Sam. Teachers recommended Kumon to
other parents – many, many children of all abilities go to the classes. I do not
think that the method suits all children and would not replace maths teaching in
schools with Kumon, but many children, who struggle with maths, would benefit
from its simplicity. In fact, many bright pupils surge ahead at school after
following a Kumon programme and nearly all Japanese children do Kumon to stay
ahead in class.
At least three other parents of children with Down syndrome have followed the
Kumon programme but I am not aware of any studies which prove its efficacy for
children with Down syndrome. It would make an interesting study but there are
many other factors which govern success especially where the children are
completing extra work outside the school environment. For Sam, however, the
"proof of the pudding is in the eating" – he took and "passed" GCSE maths and I
doubt he would have done so without Kumon maths.
1. Foxes Academy.[Online] 2007.[Cited: 12 Feb 2007] Available from:
2. Kumon Educational UK. Kumon Method. Kumon UK.[Online] 2005.[Cited: 12 Feb
2007] Available from: http://www.kumon.co.uk/aboutkumon/kumonmethod.asp
Received: 5 February 2007; Accepted 14 February 2007; Published online: 30
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