Richard Fisher has written a number of math books to review core math concepts in the Mastering Essential Math Skills series. Some of the books are available in either English or Spanish and the bilingual editions present identical lessons in both languages within a single book. All of the books have free instructional videos available online in both English and Spanish versions. (You can purchase the videos on DVDs if you cannot access the online videos.)
Books in this series might be used with students as young as fourth or fifth grade and all the way up through high school for students who need remediation. All of the books I discuss in this review cover concepts that are normally taught up through about seventh or eighth grade—the pre-algebra level. (Another course titled No-Nonsense Algebra, which I review separately, can be used for high school.)
The books are designed to reteach core concepts efficiently while also supplying review activities. The books all share a similar format, presenting each day’s lesson on one page. Each lesson begins with review problems. The first two books, Mastering Essential Math Skills: Book One and Book Two also include a unique feature for reviewing addition and subtraction facts every day using speed drills. The numbers 0 through 9 are arranged in a circle around a blank center. Spokes extending from the blank center separate the numbers and identify the space outside the circle for students to write the answers. The teacher tells students the number to write in the center of the addition circle first, and students then add that number to the surrounding numbers, writing their answers as quickly as they can. The same thing is done for the multiplication drills.
After students have completed their review problems (and speed drills in the first two books), the teacher introduces a new concept. Teaching instruction is extremely brief—presented as “Helpful Hints.” Some students might need additional instruction, and this is where the instructional videos come in. The videos vary in length but generally run from about five to ten minutes each. Fisher uses a whiteboard to teach each concept step-by-step. He sometimes uses problems that also appear in the book. He advises students to work the problems with paper and pencil along with him. He generally works through a couple of sample problems before having students return to their books to solve a set of problems on their own. One word problem is included at the end of every lesson except in those sections that are entirely devoted to solving word problems.
All of the books have sets of problems presented as “reviews” covering groups of lessons on a related topic. There is also a final review (one page of problems) for each entire section such as a review on “all fraction operations.” Some books have an additional final review for each major section at the end of the book, and some present those as tests immediately following a review. The point is that regular assessment is built into each book.
The books all have numbered spaces for students to write their answers to the problems. Answer keys are near the back of each book. (Since the speed drills in the first two books allow the teacher to select the numbers to go in the center of each circle, there are no answer keys for them.) All of the books also have a glossary and selected charts showing things such as multiplication tables, fraction/decimal equivalents, and squares and square roots.
The first two books are labeled as appropriate for certain ranges of grade levels: grades four and five for Book One and the middle grades through high school for Book Two. However, you would not expect students at the low end of either grade range to be able to learn everything in the book that encompasses their grade level in that first year. For example, Book One includes coverage of fractions, decimals, percents, and ratios. While you might teach some of those topics in fourth grade, many should wait until fifth grade. The layout of the first two books actually makes them more appropriate for students beyond the first designated grade level, especially those who need review or remediation.
Neither book has enough content for a full-year math program. Book One has 143 pages of lessons and reviews while Book Two has 127. Book Two repeats most of the topics already covered in Book One but with different problems at a slightly more difficult level. It does not have a section on probability and statistics (which is included in Book One), and it has fewer lessons than Book One on charts and graphs. On the other hand, it adds one or two additional, more advanced subtopics under most of the seven other sections. Even with these differences, the content of the books is similar enough that you would be unlikely to use Book Two following immediately after Book One.
The other books in the series do not have any grade-level designations, which makes them even more flexible. These are the titles of the other books:
- Mastering Essential Math Skills: Whole Numbers and Integers
- Mastering Essential Math Skills: Fractions
- Mastering Essential Math Skills: Decimals and Percents
- Mastering Essential Math Skills: Geometry
- Mastering Essential Math Skills: Problem Solving
- Mastering Essential Math Skills: Pre-Algebra Concepts
- Basic Math Skills Rescue: Part 1 and Part 2
With the exception of Pre-Algebra Concepts, these books repeat the same topics that were taught in Book One and Book Two. A major difference is that each book has two lesson pages on every topic--double the number of lessons. The instructional information is almost identical to that in Book One and Book Two, although many of the problems are different. To make things more confusing, Basic Math Skills Rescue, Part 1 and Part 2 are compilations of the six individual books listed before them. The first three books are in Part 1 and the second three are in Part 2. This means that you have three different series of books from which to choose to cover all of the topics except pre-algebra.
You might choose Book One and Book Two if you want to include the speed drills. You might choose the individual topic books if you need to review only a few topics. You might choose the Basic Math Skills Rescue books if you need to review everything and want to save money by purchasing fewer books or because you just prefer the consolidation. And you might choose either of the last two options if you want students to have the option to spend two lessons on every topic.
The videos were designed to align with Book One, Book Two, and Pre-Algebra Concepts. Since, the topics are the same in all of the books (parallel series), those using the other books simply choose the videos that cover the same topics in the other books.
Many students need review or remediation for a number of reasons: transitioning into homeschooling, spotty instruction in previous years, a struggle with learning particular concepts, illness, and so on. The Mastering Essential Math Skills series makes it easy to target particular skills with efficient lessons. The videos save parents from having to teach new concepts. In most cases, parents will simply need to check the student’s work. The books are reasonably priced, but when you take into consideration that students also have free access to videos for every lesson, these books are a real bargain.