A student thinks through an equation by recalling their math facts.

Teaching Math Fact Fluency | Why Rote Learning Works best

Developing math fact fluency requires memorization and enables success in math

In case you have any doubt, every set of official recommendations about elementary math recognizes that children need to “know facts from memory,” which is to say recall. Memorization is required to develop math fact fluency or easy, automatic recall. Teaching math fact fluency is necessary, of course, for fluent computation. Math fact fluency is also required for understanding and manipulating fractions. Instant recall of math facts is required to be able to recognize when the calculator is not showing the right answer. How students should learn facts, and when they should begin the process is not as well understood.

What Students must know before beginning to memorize math facts

Students need to understand the operation, whether it is addition, subtraction, multiplication, or division, before they begin to memorize the math facts in that operation. What does it mean to say a student “understands” an operation? It means that given some time, they can figure out the answer to a math fact problem in that operation. A student who can add 8 and 7 and get the answer of 15 by drawing lines or counting on their fingers understands the operation. A student who can add 6 five times to get 30 understands multiplication well enough to begin learning answers. Really if you think about math facts, there are only two things to know: how to figure it out and what the answer is. Once students can “figure it out,” then all that’s left is memorizing the answer, so they don’t have to keep figuring it out over and over!

What students do NOT need to know before beginning memorization

There is a very widespread belief that students must play around with math facts before they begin memorization. That they need to experience a variety of ways of figuring out facts. Or that they need to first learn relationships among facts, like the doubles or doubles plus one. It is believed they need to do these before they begin memorization. Yes, done poorly, timed tests of ALL the facts without a program of instruction, is bad for students. Timed tests without learning results in students reconfirming their worst fears, that they are “bad at math.” That is counter-productive. We want students to develop confidence in their ability to learn and do the math. But do they need to play a lot of games or spend a lot of time figuring out math facts?  Maybe not.

Experimental Research has NEVER Shown the Necessity of Games.

Some advocates suggest that students must learn how to figure out facts “efficiently” before beginning memorization. But there is no cognitive difference between being able to figure out a fact efficiently or inefficiently. John A. Van de Walle, an author of “developmental” and “student-centered” math textbooks, is quite emphatic. He says,”Do not subject any student to fact drills unless the student has developed an efficient strategy for the facts included in the drill. … Drill prior to development of efficient methods is simply a waste of precious instructional time,” (Van de Walle, John A. Elementary and Middle School Math).

It is a bold claim, but not one that is backed up by any experimental evidence. Proponents like Van de Walle often cite “research” to “prove” that students must explore and play with numbers before memorization can begin. The “research”  citations are not experimental studies with control groups. They are simply recommendations or observations of what students do when they try to memorize on their own. 

It is true that if there is no systematic instruction, students will start finding ways to remember facts on their own. These little techniques are not bad in themselves but are abandoned when students finally learn the facts. When you can instantly recall the answer to a fact, you know it without going through any intervening thought. In fact, there’s no time for that. If you know that 8 plus 9 is 17 in a straight recall, instantly, you don’t need anything else. You no longer benefit from thinking through that “8 plus 8 is 16 and since 8 plus 9 is one more, the answer is one more than 16 or 17.”

 

Real research into teaching math fact fluency is desperately needed.  

An interesting experiment, that has never been done, would be to put randomly selected students into two groups after they had learned how to figure out an operation. One group could do these various non-rote, playing with numbers activities. That play-time would be followed with a program of memorization of math facts. The second group would go ahead with the program of memorization without bothering with all exploratory activities. Rocket Math would gladly fund such a research study and provide the math facts practice materials to do it. Seriously, which group do you think would have learned the facts soonest?

Common Non-Rote Activities that Just Waste Time

Students and teacher playing multiplication games with dice sitting in a circle in a classroom, to learn math facts.

Dice. 

The various types of activities that have students roll dice and add numbers together are usually a waste of time. Generally, most of the students are not doing math at all; they are just watching. The ones who are doing math, are just practicing figuring out the facts–but that’s something they already knew.

Cards.

Some recommendations include having children play cards–hoping they will learn more about numbers by doing that.  If you don’t know math facts, you will find playing most card games that involve combinations to be difficult.  You might start trying to remember some common combinations on your own.  That does not help you memorize facts any faster, however.

Combinations.  

One popular idea is having students make up combinations of numbers that add up to ten. Here’s an example of one version. Use a large dice and a whiteboard with a blank number bond drawn on it. Put the number 10 in the middle circle, and tell the students that you are going to make a number bond that equals 10. Roll the dice, and whatever number comes up, it goes into the top circle. The students then have to decide what number goes in the bottom circle to complete the bond.

Here is another variation of the same thing.  Set up three hula hoops in the yard. Take ten students at a time and roll the dice. Four of them moved into one hula hoop and the other six crowded into the other. Then have them get back together as a group of ten. Roll the dice again, and then have them split into two pairs again. It may take several rounds of this moving in variations of 10 before the students “get it.”

No time left to teach math fact fluency.

These activities take up a lot of valuable instructional time, to no clear end. The real result of these recommended activities is that teachers NEVER get enough time to work on memorization of facts. In the United States, a huge percentage of our children are not fluent in math facts or computation or the prerequisite skills for algebra. These games and activities waste the time needed to actually develop math fact fluency.

How to Improve Math Fact Fluency with Rote Learning

Students can only memorize a few facts at a time.  Almost no one can memorize ten similar facts at the same time.  Instruction must introduce a careful sequence of a few facts at a time, followed by plenty of practice.  Well-designed instruction makes memorization easy.  Students can instantly recall the answers to facts they have committed to long-term memory.  Facts introduced too quickly can overwhelm a student’s memory capacity.  The task requires a steady process of accumulating these facts over several weeks.  Students learn at a pace based on their ability.  Everyone can memorize the facts, but just not all at the same speed.  Everyone can do rote learning, but it takes time and patient practice.

How to Get Kids to Memorize Math Facts (And Love Doing It!)

A student holds up their Rocket Math score sheet, which teaches math fact fluency to students.

There isn’t anything less intrinsically interesting than learning math facts. However, students and teachers commonly tell me that “doing Rocket Math” is their favorite time of the day. Why is that?  Both the Rocket Math worksheets and the new Online Game are designed to carefully introduce facts at a rate based on student learning. Students are continuously successful and are not overwhelmed.

A second reason students love Rocket Math are its built-in milestones.  As they achieve them, students can recognize the progress they are making. Students love feeling themselves achieving mastery–it is fun. They know they are in school to learn, and they love it when they can tell that they are learning. Far from being harmful, learning math facts can help build the self-esteem of all students. Not to mention making math easier in the long run. Don’t let anyone tell you that you have to postpone this important aspect of your students’ education.

**Nor do the proponents of these various math activities and games say which grades should do these and which ones should stop playing games and get to memorizing. Consequently, many teachers keep doing these games all the way through elementary school and never do get around to the memorization part.

 

20 years of Rocket Math shows that going straight to memorization works fine

Teachers have been using, and students have been learning from Rocket Math for over 20 years, without first doing these games, and not having any problems. You can too. Try it for yourself and see. We have a 60-day free trial of Rocket Math Online Game. Call us if you need an extension.  

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