I remember that when I was in third grade in public school (way back in 1980), I memorized math facts. My family had moved to Iowa from Oklahoma halfway through the fall semester, and the new school had a room at the end of the hall with a dinosaur of a computer (cutting edge back then) that we took turns using to play a math facts program.
It was a very simple timed flash card type program on a green screen. When we passed each level, the computer would print out a nifty certificate that I, for one, was very proud of. I think I still have some of those certificates. We spent all year memorizing math facts, and it was quite a competition among us more motivated students to see who could earn the certificates faster.
I didn’t realize at the time how important this was. I guess most public schools today don’t think it is important enough to spend much time on math facts because they think it is much more important to teach second graders algebra.
The subject of math facts is something I have been dealing with quite a bit in my homeschooling experience. When I pulled my older girls out of public school as they were going into fifth and sixth grades, I didn’t even think about going back to review math facts because they were both at the top of their classes. I thought they should have been way past that.
I realized about a year into homeschooling the girls that they really didn’t have the basic math facts memorized to automaticity (automatic response). In fact, Virginia’s teacher had taught her class a finger trick to multiplying by 9, and to this day, Virginia has to stop and do the finger trick to answer a times-nine question.
Later, I homeschooled a fifth grade boy that had been expelled and needed help. I realized right off the bat that the reason he was frustrated to the point of anger with school was that he was trying to do long division with no real knowledge of any of his math facts. Plus, he had been making good grades in math until that year. It is very frustrating to a child to make them go back and learn something they should have learned in second or third grade.
It seems that in most math classes today, students are taught math facts but never made to memorize them to a level of automaticity. Once they are taught (even if they are not truly learned), the teacher must move on in order to keep up with her scope and sequence.
This year my son Joel is in second grade. We are working with Horizon Math for 2nd Grade and Joel is doing well at it, but I realized that it moves very quickly through the math facts. He is already on multiplication, meanwhile he is still trying to memorize his addition facts. He has learned how to do addition and subtraction, but because he didn’t memorize them when he learned them in first grade, he got in the habit of using his fingers. This habit is extremely hard to break!
So a few months ago I bought a math facts practice curriculum called “Rocket Math.” It was created for public schools and some of the schools around us in Oklahoma use it, however I don’t think they stick strictly to the program as it is written. Rocket Math is a ten-minutes-a-day, worksheet-based, supplemental curriculum designed for the sequential practice and mastery of math facts. To see sample worksheet pages, click here.
We have started with addition and are about halfway through. It is going slow because of Joel’s habit of counting on his fingers, even with problems that I know he already knows but feels the need to count. When we finish addition, we will start subtraction. I am hoping that since he doesn’t have any shortcut habits for subtraction yet, he’ll be able to memorize these facts even faster. We’ve been using this alongside an enjoyable math supplement series called Life of Fred Elementary Series.
I found the instructions for Rocket Math to be very enlightening. It has changed how I want my students to learn their math facts and cemented the “why” for me. So I want to share what the authors say about automaticity:
What is automaticity with math facts? (From Rocket Math)
“Automaticity is the third stage of learning. (Buckle up. We need to review a bit of Ed. Theory here. Ed who? No, Education Theory. Don’t worry, it won’t be painful, and it is really quite smart and interesting.) First we learn facts to the level of accuracy — we can do them correctly if we take our time and concentrate. Next, if we continue practicing, we can develop fluency. Then we can go quickly without making mistakes. Finally, after fluency, if we keep practicing we can develop automaticity.
Automaticity is when we can go quickly without errors and without much conscious attention. We can perform other tasks at the same time and still perform quickly and accurately. Automaticity with math facts means we can answer any math fact instantly and without having to stop and think about it. In fact, one good description of automaticity is that it is “obligatory” — you can’t help but do it.
Students who are automatic in decoding can’t help but read a word if you hold it up in front of them. Similarly students who are automatic with their math facts can’t help but think of the answer to a math fact when they say the problem to themselves. (See, that didn’t hurt much huh?)”
Why is automaticity in math facts important? (From Rocket Math)
“Automaticity with math facts is important because the whole point of learning math facts is to use them in the service of higher and more complex math problems. We want students to be thinking about the complex process, the problem-solving or the multi-step algorithm they are learning — not having to stop and ponder the answer to simple math facts. (Taking off their shoes and socks to count toes is a good indication that perhaps automaticity is not present!)
So not only do we want them accurate and fast (fluent), but we also want them to be thinking about other things at the same time (automaticity). One characteristic of students who lack automaticity in math facts is that their math work is full of simple, easy-to-fix errors. We used to call these “careless errors.” But these errors stem from not knowing math facts to automaticity — the student can either focus on getting the facts correct or on getting the procedures correct — but cannot focus on both at the same time.
So helping students learn math facts to automaticity will improve their ability to learn and retain higher order math skills — because they won’t be distracted by trying to remember math facts.”
What do you think about the importance of mastering math facts? What curriculum and/or tools are you using to help your children master their math facts? Or have you found a different approach that works for your children? We’d love to hear your thoughts and tips on this topic in the comments below.
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