Monday, February 17, 2014

Growing Confidence--Helping Students Succeed with Math Facts

If you are like me, you have a number of students in your class that still don't know their math facts.  They didn't know them last year.  They didn't know them the year before.  They think they are "bad at math" because of their inability to quickly retrieve these basic facts.

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'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.
Look what we learned!  This student knows all the 0 and 1 facts and can easily make 10's.  There are a few doubles that need some work--and then counting up 2, working with one more and one less than 10, and doubles plus or minus one are great starting strategies!
The "not yet" pile requires a little more work.  I look to see patterns in facts they don't know.  Do they understanding doubling?  Do they know how to "make tens" so that they can do 9 + 3 by turning it into 10 + 2?  Can they do "double doubles" for their multiply by four facts?  I then start small by teaching one new strategy at a time.  I want to make sure that students don't regress to old, inefficient strategies like counting all fingers and so on.  There are tons of resources available online that can help you recognize all the different strategies that can help students...just remember that they need to be explicitly taught!  If they don't know 6 x 8, they need a way to derive it efficiently. Once a student has really mastered a strategy, the flash cards that are now "instant" get added into the home practice bag-and don't forget to update the highlighted chart!

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!

Make sense?

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.

Want to try my screening assessments for free?  CLICK HERE

Want this blog post, addition and multiplication cards, 3 versions of each screening test, and math fact grid all bundled together in a nice neat package?  Check out the resource at my TpT store by clicking HERE!

or find me on Twitter at @FourthGrStudio 
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  1. Have you tried with your students? It's a free program and uses a similar approach for fact fluency. ~Stacy @

  2. No I have not...we don't have quite enough access to technology to allow for daily practice. Thanks for the suggestion!

  3. I'm a Title 1 intervention teachers--always looking for new ways to help my students. Thanks for this very helpful post!

    1. So glad, Carla! We have to be so mindful of their hearts along with their minds, don't we? Give them some hope--that's a good starting point! :) Thanks for stopping by!

  4. Another great math website is's not timed but is so interactive and my kiddos love it. We go to the tech lab once a week for math. I work with the strategic level.
    We also put up 'fish' that have the tables inside a circle on the fish. Every time they pass one they get to add a sticker. They love this as well.
    Thanks for refreshing my memory on the hundreds chart though. That would be great to add to their agendas!

  5. I love how you assess which facts the individual student is having trouble with. The chart you use is so visual. Definitely reminds me of Although I find many students who struggle with their facts don't like this site because so much of it is timed.

    I do a "Mad Minute" with my math classes each week. They graph their progress and we have a friendly competition between the classes. I keep track of each students score from week to week. Any student whose score goes up from one week to the next gets counted in the competition. The class with the most students who improve wins. This way the students who might only be completing 10 problems correctly in a minute can still be counted and help their class win. Each goal is individual. Each student is looking to improve from one week to the next and it doesn't matter where they started. I also don't announce who the students are who improved. I just post how many students in each class improved.

    Quinnessential Lessons

  6. Thanks for your comments, Kim. I think everyone needs to just do what works for them. In my district, we can only use time tests for "screening" kids so programs like Mad Minute aren't allowed...the students do get a great sense of satisfaction as they get to highlight new "fluent" facts and see the flashcards moving from the "not yet" bag to the "fluent" bag!


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