Don't get me wrong--fact "fluency" is important...and it sure makes "big math" an awful lot easier! The key is that students maintain perspective on the role math facts play in the big picture--and once THEY know that YOU know that there is a lot more to them as mathematicians than their score on a time test, you have started the process of improving their math esteem.
The simple fact is, we need a way to make some headway with these strugglers while investing only a small amount of time--after all, there are way bigger mathematical fish to fry!
Here's what I do.
First of all, we need to identify which students are our target audience. Whether you wish to screen students with a traditional time test, an untimed paper and pencil assessment, or a one-on-one interview, you need to find a way to identify which students you wish to work with. For me, I give students a 50 fact paper and pencil test where I ask the students to work the problems in order, draw a line at 2 minutes (this lets me see how many facts they can do per minute), and then they finish at their own pace (this lets me see what problems they don't know). Often people give timed fact tests which raise the level of anxiety in many students--and then those students who don't know their facts never get the chance to put down more than a few problems. How will you ever know which facts they know and don't know?
I use the following paper and pencil screener. It has all the key facts once (not the turn around facts and not all the 0's and 1's) and I like that it's 50 problems. I like that students can see how far they get in 2 minutes but also need to finish the rest so I can see which problems they miss. I like students to be able to set both speed goals (Can you get more done in 2 minutes next time?) and accuracy goals (Let's see if we can get 48 right next time instead of 42).
This is just the first step...it's my "screening tool". Once I find out my most at risk students, I take the diagnostics one level deeper. I run each student through a screening where I flash each fact card at them for 3 seconds. I put them in two piles--"fluent", and "not yet". The cards in the "fluent" pile go home for practice. Students drill them for speed for 2 minutes per day. TWO MINUTES. Why are they practicing what they already know? To build automaticity! I sit with each of these students and highlight a fact grid to show them how many facts they already know. It's also a great chance to review the concept of turn around facts (commutative property) and the organization of the tables. This is also the time to personally promise your students that you know this has been hard--but that YOU have a plan and they WILL make progress. These students need you to build their confidence--they are desperate for someone to believe in them and to help them.
So…students have two baggies—one that goes back and forth between home and school daily. The “not yet” baggie stays with me so I can plan intervention activities to teach the strategies until they are fluent enough to move into the other baggie!
So...can students be given the tools to improve their math facts? YES! Do all students need to go through this intensive process? Of course not...this is an intervention for those students who struggle and who have lost hope. Once the screening is done, this is something I spend 5 minutes per day on--tops. I pull students needing similar strategies together, teach the strategy, practice the strategy, and then keep reviewing it daily until they seem to be instant. Slowly--and meaningfully--students can add to their collection of known facts. As a side note...I do this only with addition and multiplication...and then I teach students how to use addition and multiplication strategies to help with subtraction and division.
Most important to me, however, is that we send the message to students that they CAN tackle math if they get help, use strategies, and remember that math facts are just a tiny part of who they are as mathematicians.
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