Looking for the best ways to make learning fun while teaching math fact practice? Let’s start with what math fact fluency is and why it’s important. Then we can move into ways to practice math facts to increase learning success.
WHAT IS MATH FACT FLUENCY PRACTICE?
Simply put, math fact fluency is the ability to recall basic math facts – addition, subtraction, multiplication and division – quickly and accurately. This ability to recall facts or mastering fact fluency, comes from repeated practice and committing them to long-term memory. Students are expected not to rely on counting their fingers or drawing models to solve problems.
Which math facts your students need to practice depends on the grade level. It starts with ways to make ten and adding to five in kindergarten and goes through division in fourth and fifth grade.
The Components of Math Fluency
Math fluency is made up of four components: accuracy, automaticity, rate, and flexibility. All four are required parts of state standards as well as the Common Core standards.
Think of the early stages as learning the process of how to solve each math problem. In early elementary math, it’s about getting hands-on to learn new strategies. These include counting fingers, using number lines, and manipulatives to work through their thinking and learn about numbers. Visuals like charts and posters you create together during a lesson are a huge help for students at the beginning stages of learning. This is why you typically see pictures on early elementary worksheets. I discuss this later as a way to increase engagement.
The goal, as it is in reading, is to prioritize accuracy over speed. This allows students to build math fluency over time once they have learned the “how.”
It’s essential that children learn basic math facts and are able to recall them quickly (in 3 seconds or less). This is called automaticity, when students are able to recall facts from their long-term memory without much effort. Once students have learned accuracy and have a strong foundation, they can move on to the stage of building math fluency.
At this stage, they may rely on those strategies they learned earlier, like finger counting. These strategies should not be discouraged unless students are consistently getting the wrong answers. As they become more confident in their knowledge of their math facts, they will gradually release these strategies over time.
The goal at this stage is to build accuracy, recalling basic facts rapidly. As they obtain math fact mastery, they can move on to applying more difficult math challenges.
The number of math facts students can recall in one minute is the rate. The minimum number of basic facts should be 30 to 40 problems per minute. This has proven to be a good indicator of student success in higher level math.
Flexibility in math is when a student understands how to solve a math problem in more than one way. When teaching in the classroom, often we teach students more than one way to solve a problem. Not all math works this way, but when learning basic math fact strategies, students may prefer one method over another. I always told my students to use the strategy they felt most comfortable with. Using a strategy they are confident in means they’re more likely to get the right answer.
WHY DOES FACT FLUENCY MATTER?
I am sure we can all think of WAY too many times a student has asked the question, Why are we learning this? However, when it comes to math facts, we use them almost every day. Most of the time we don’t even realize we are using them!
For our students, it’s not only important for them to learn addition and subtraction facts, but it’s the foundation for the rest of the skills they will use in math.
1. Reduces brainpower and Saves Time
Science has proven that each person has a limited amount of brainpower we can use at any given moment. When solving a word problem, for example, students must be able to read and comprehend the problem (which proves another problem if the child struggles in reading as well). Then, they must determine what information is important, as well as identify the steps to solve the problem.
If students can process basic math facts quickly, they can focus more of their energy on performing the processes that are required to complete the multi-step word problem rather than all of their energy on solving basic math.
It doesn’t necessarily make the word problem easier. I know…even though I was successful at math, I have always struggled at solving word problems. However, imagine what it would be like for a struggling student who spends all of their time and mental energy on solving the math facts to then have to focus on problem-solving with nothing left in the tank.
2. State Testing is Easier
Let me start by saying I know what you’re already thinking. We shouldn’t teach to the test…and I completely agree! However, nothing frustrated me more than following the curriculum as it was written. Then, to get to the test and have my students score poorly when I knew I had taught the standards on the test. Needless to say, I had to find a way to teach the standards and present it in a way that my students would still be successful,. This meant supplementing the curriculum with activities that were similar to how the state test was given.
For example, I haven’t seen one example where students practiced adding more than two rows of addition. Yet, that was on the state test. I taught my students how to add two-digit numbers so they were able to correctly perform that skill. And yet, how were my students supposed to be successful on the test? I discuss this further in my post Two Digit Addition and Subtraction with Regrouping.
Challenges to Building Fact Fluency
Some of the biggest challenges I noticed in my classroom when it came to fact practice was:
- Not enough math fact practice
- Students weren’t engaged in activities
The curriculum provided little practice for students to work through basic facts. It focused on fluency through timed worksheets as their practice. Students who were struggling to solve the problems efficiently and accurately lacked confident, did not want to participate in the activity, and failed before they even started. The independent worksheets that were provided did not contain enough math fact practice to build mastery.
THE STRUGGLE TO INCREASE STUDENT ENGAGEMENT WITH MATH FACT PRACTICE
One of the things I struggled with early on in my teaching career is how to get my students excited about practicing their math facts. Teaching reading has always been a little easier for me because it’s something I love so it’s not too difficult to share my passion with my students. However, it takes a little effort to get excited about math, which is something I have developed while creating resources of my own to share in the classroom. I talk about this more in this post, How to Increase Student Engagement Using Unicorns and Other Themes.
HOW DO YOU TEACH MATH FACT FLUENCY?
One of the topics of conversation that kept coming up in our district when talking about math is always how to teach young children to master their addition and subtraction facts. With constantly changing standards and increasing expectations, it can be difficult to keep up with everything.
I’m just going to cut to the chase. Traditional worksheets provided in curriculum can be downright boring. To drive it home, the curriculum my school used had practice worksheets that contained row after row of addition and subtraction problems. Students were timed every day on their ability to recall these facts quickly (in under 3 seconds) in order to master these skills.
Don’t get me wrong! There’s nothing wrong with having my second graders complete 25-50 problems on a sheet to test their mastery. It’s important to build math fact fluency so children can focus on being able to solve more difficult math skills, like problem solving or word problems (and later on, algebra and geometry).
Make Learning Math Fluency Fun!
However, there is definitely something wrong with the method of using the same boring worksheets every day. Students need to relate to what they are learning and be invested. Or at the very least, they need to be excited about completing the activity, however you make that happen. Let’s face it, sometimes we have to get pretty creative about our delivery!
Whether it’s math or reading, the important thing is to continually practice and be consistent. And if your students are struggling, it means they need that much more practice to learn these skills, as well as more explicit instruction!
This means students should practice DAILY to develop math fluency.
However, one of the challenges we have as teachers is coming up with activities to practice the skills our students need to learn without them getting bored or feeling like they’re doing the same thing day in and day out. We can accomplish this is by varying activities or by simply changing the worksheets while practicing the same skill.
Ways to Increase Math Fluency with Math Fact Practice
There are many ways students can develop their math fluency:
- Digital math games, such as Xtramath or IXL
- Partner or small group games with playing cards or flashcards like War or Kaboom!
- Self-checking puzzles and activities (Color by code, for example)
- Number talks during morning meeting or before a math lesson
- Mental math practice – i.e. timed worksheets
All of these can be done during different parts of the day:
- Morning Meeting
- Math Meeting
- Morning Work
- Small Group
HELP MAINTAIN FOCUS AND INTEREST WITH MATH FACT PRACTICE
Negative behavior in students begins when they have lost focus, are bored, or have already given up because they lack confidence.
The reason we are encouraged to break our schedules up into smaller chunks is because young students struggle to maintain focus for longer than 15-20 minutes. Any longer than that and students begin to check out. Whereas, higher level learners can focus for approximately 30 minutes. So, it’s important to take the 60 minute math lesson and divide it up into smaller amounts of time. It may look something like this:
- Timed Math Facts (5 minutes)
- Mini-lesson (10-15 minutes)
- Guided Practice (5-10 minutes)
- Independent Practice (20 minutes)
The largest amount of time your student spend during a math lesson should be spent on students practicing math skills. And in early elementary, they should have the opportunity to practice their math facts every day! This may not be during the math lesson, but could take place as part of morning work or during math centers through a workshop approach.
Fitting Math Fact Practice into Your Schedule
However it looks for you will be different than how it looks for another teacher. Again, the important thing to remember is to practice and be consistent. Students will learn the routine, what to expect during that part of the day, and they will look forward to it. I tend to do something similar with 1-2 center rotations each day, but have found doing all 5 stations over 2 1/2 hours just doesn’t work for my teaching style.
The Secret Sauce to Math Fact Practice
And although I get tempted to try lots of different activities and switch things up every week during our math warm up and centers, I have learned to choose a few activities my students enjoy and know how to do consistently. That’s how they become successful at mastering their skills. Whether it be addition and subtraction facts or writing, I want to spend less time giving them directions on how to do the activity, and spend more time on practicing.
Not only does this help them become independent learners throughout the year, they gain confidence in what they are doing. Then I am able to spend more time working with my small groups and focusing less on management during independent work times.
Now on to the FUN stuff! Want a fun way for your students to practice their addition and subtraction math fluency? Make it into a game. I found a teacher who had made word cards years ago and created a game played like Kaboom. My students loved it so much I came up with the idea to do the same thing with math fact fluency cards. These are simply flash cards that have a few rules on how to play the game.
It might seem simple, but I took those boring practice sheets and added graphics (like unicorns, for example) to jazz them up a bit. And let me clarify…by unicorns, I also mean all of the other fun things kids like to learn or talk about (sharks, mermaids, pirates, dinosaurs, aliens, etc.). I switch them out based on the unit I’m teaching, and by switching out the same worksheets with different pictures and changing things up a bit, my students get excited all over again about doing the activity. They continue practicing the same skill, but also know what to do when they see the activity because of consistency.
And that’s they key with anything…consistency. We get better at what we do consistently.
To practice the same skill with other themes, students can play these games throughout the year to enjoy the game all year long:
- Unicorn Magic!
- Summer Fun! Math Activities Game
- Alien! Activities Math Game
- Ah-choo! Snowman Math Game
- Math Fluency Game Bundle #1 with 9 MATH FLUENCY GAMES your students can play throughout the year
Another thing I struggled with while teaching second grade was two digit addition and subtraction with regrouping. Once my little 2nd graders mastered single digit addition and subtraction, there wasn’t much that our curriculum offered. So I found myself scouring the internet trying to find a good collection of math worksheets to practice this very skill. (In fact, that’s one of the reasons my district was looking for a new curriculum. It was way out of date and no longer matched the current learning standards.)
So, I created my own math fact fluency packs with two digit addition and subtraction with regrouping (carrying and borrowing).