I’ve been trying to figure out what makes Ed Zaccaro’s challenge math books work so well for kids with such different math needs. I bought the primary level book for one young child who needs more math than he’s getting in school and after working through a few chapters with him I realized the book might be helpful for another student who probably needs less math than she’s getting in school.
Zaccaro’s books have illustrations, and rather silly ones. That could be said of many math texts, but there’s something about the Zaccaro illustrations that endears rather than annoys most of the kids I’ve introduced to them. I think what might be different is that the illustrations aren’t trying to pretend to be cool, nor are they just there for the sake of imagery. The content is delivered in conversation between illustrated characters, and often the scenarios are just silly enough to warrant a laugh but not so silly they’re too distracting. (This does depend on the person of course.)
And then there’s the tone of the explanations. They’re not dry, but they’re not condescending either. This is a critical element. It’s a fine line between whimsy and condescension when it comes to writing for children. Kids can smell condescension. Something about the Zaccaro tone and illustrations often seems to invite a sort of cheerful eye-rolling perplexedness without distracting too much from the content.
The other appeal of the books is that at the end of each topic, there are four problem sets. The problems start at a basic level (always reflecting the content of the topic) and then progress from there. So depending on the ability of the person working on it, you can stop after the first few basic problems and move on to the next topic, or stop after the first few and come back to the next level later, or jump ahead, or whatever makes sense. And in my experience, what makes sense for one person on one topic doesn’t necessarily make sense on the next; different ones are more and less difficult depending on all sorts of cognitive and other factors.
If you think this series might be useful for someone you know, I recommend looking for sample pages first; you may find that the appropriate level to start with doesn’t align grade-wise. This is maybe my only complaint though I don’t see a way around it – we make such a big deal about grade levels that young people are often sensitive about the grade level of the work they’re doing. The book titles have to give some indication of who they’re written for, and at least these don’t list numbers of grades. But the primary book can be useful for struggling ten year-olds as well as math-devouring seven year-olds. So try the sample pages first.