A while back I took stock of what we were doing as a math department to improve kids’ math fluency. It seemed that every year we had a chunk of kids who came up to sixth grade with amazing fact fluency. We had another chunk who fought with basic addition and multiplication much like struggling readers fought with multisyllabic words. I knew it wasn’t just happening in my class, because we talked about the phenomenon (and how bad it was) each year in math meetings. We talked about how it impacted students’ ability to grasp higher level skills- and how the demands of the 6th grade curriculum were just too much for many of the same kids who lacked fact fluency. We also talked about how there was just no time to teach pre-requisite skills like basic operations in class… and how assigning it for homework wasn’t helping.
Number Sense Can Grow
I decided to do two things. First, I wanted to provide the time to practice the facts. I had been telling kids for years that with just a few minutes of practice regularly, they would know their facts. Time to prove it. Next, I wanted to see if I could explicitly teach the flexibility that the kids who were fluent with their facts seemed to have with larger numbers. For example, Julio knew his basic facts really well. When he saw larger number like 60 x 30, he didn’t flinch. He used what he knew about 6, 3 and 18 and moved on. I wanted to give everyone Julio’s gift!
Finding the Time
First, I found the time. I thought about how much time was lost regularly because of this gap in skills. The students with great number sense (and fact fluency) grasped every new concept faster than their struggling peers. I retaught and retaught. Sometimes I had a “fast finisher” assignment- but regardless- if I could reclaim some of that reteaching time… those would be found minutes! I also thought about the time lost to lecturing kids about knowing their math facts. I needed those minutes back ASAP. We started weekly fact quizzes. The class corrected them, kids made flashcards (on the spot) for any unknown facts, and I gave them 5 minutes EACH class to practice from those cards for the rest of the week. They also charted their own progress. This Monday quiz-correct-flash card activity took about 12 minutes once we became efficient. It’s all about procedures!
Next, I found a way to bridge the gap between 1 x 7 and 10 x 7, and 240/3 and 80 x 3. After we covered all of the basic facts, we moved on to Bridging Multiples. I explicitly taught the skill, and then provided the same series of practice opportunities. It took no time at all for kids to grasp this, since they all had their basic facts under their belts.
Number Sense Can Grow
Everything changed that year. The class with the lowest homework average in September, became my shining star by June. The kids in that class grew leaps and bounds. What they needed was protected time for practice and explicit instruction. They needed me to show them just how much I valued them learning their fact… by making it a priority- not just complaining about it. I had no trouble keeping up with the other teachers’ pacing throughout the curriculum. And the kids who claimed to “hate math” in September were so proud of themselves once we began this work. I had finally met them exactly where they were!
If you’re thinking of trying something like this in your class, I’d love to know how it works for you! Here are the tools I developed for this work.