Five interventions for frustrated students

Erica writes:
My son currently is in second grade and uses Rocket Math in his school. He has been doing addition and is on Level “S”. Most of his class has moved onto subtraction and multiplication.
My concern with him is where does this leave him next year in 3rd grade?? Is he left behind? He knows the addition facts orally but fails to meet his goal on the 1minute drills due to his anxiety and frustration with being timed. He struggles to move forward even though he knows his addition facts!
With this scenario, how does Rocket Math help? How will he ever move on to learn subtraction and multiplication? He’s a smart kid but can’t seem to succeed with this method!
Please help me to see otherwise!

Dr. Don answers:
Erica, I can see why you are frustrated. Students should not take more than three to five days to pass a level in Rocket Math and no more than a year to pass an operation such as addition. The rule is: If you child is frustrated by Rocket Math–it isn’t being done right! The school should not be complacent and should not leave your son to fall way behind his classmates. If a student takes longer than six days to pass a level I recommend that the school or the teacher should intervene. Interventions should happen in a matter of days, rather than allowing students to stall for weeks or months. You are writing in response to my post, so you know you can read the directions, even get the program and work with your son at home to help him. What interventions should be tried with your son?

1. My first intervention would be to practice Level S test (inside the box) orally with your son in the evenings once or twice. If he has been on Level S for a long time, there are facts on the test that need review–through oral practice. Use the same correction procedure we recommend everywhere: if he makes any hesitation, give the correct problem and answer, have your son repeat it three times, then back up three problems and go again. A couple of days of that and he should pass handily at school.

2. If that didn’t help your son pass in two days, my second intervention would be to watch your son take a written test and see what is going on, see if there is evidence of frustration, or anxiety, or if there are behaviors during testing that are interfering with good test results. If you want to send me video of your son taking the test at home, I could probably tell what is the issue that is holding him back. There may be some test-taking behaviors he can learn, such as not stopping during the test, or not erasing sloppy answers, which would improve his test results.

3. The third intervention I would do is give the Level S test orally. There are a number of reasons a student might not be passing and I have blogged and have video clips on YouTube that address what to do with students who are “stuck.” You write that you know that he “knows his facts.” Probably because when you ask him a fact, he can answer it immediately, without having to stop and figure it out. If that is true he should be able to verbally tell you the answer (not read the problem, just say the answer) to 40 facts in a minute at Level S. You could test him at home to find out if he does know the facts at Level S. If he can orally answer 40 facts on the Level S test, he knows the facts well enough and should have passed. If he is not passing the written test even though he can verbally say the answer to 40 facts in a minute, then his writing goal is off for some reason. Another piece of data that would suggest his writing goal is off, is if he has been stalled at some rate of problems and hasn’t improved his rate for a week. That suggests that that number of facts (whatever it is) is all he can actually do, and his writing goals need to be revised down to the number he can write when taking a one-minute written test (assuming he is on a level on which he can verbally answer 40 problems in a minute). In a couple of places in the directions (FAQs), I explain that, so you can share with the teacher.

4. What if, as you suggest, he is freezing up during the written test due to “anxiety and frustration with being timed?” The best way to overcome anxiety is to keep doing the thing that makes you anxious, which is why most students stop being anxious about Rocket Math after a couple of weeks. A fourth intervention would be to practice taking the test in writing–but untimed. If he completed all the items on the test several times at home, untimed, he would stop being so anxious about doing it under timed conditions. Most students also understand why they are being timed (to see if they know the facts without hesitation). He will not get unduly frustrated if you explain to him this is just a race and if he doesn’t give up he will keep getting better until he wins. Of course, if his writing goal is too high and he can’t possibly meet the goal, he will become frustrated.

5. If your son cannot already orally say the answers to 40 problems on the Level S test in one minute, he needs some more practice. My fifth intervention would to practice with your son–be his partner. He may not have a conscientious partner at school and may not be getting the most out of his 2 minute practice time. I routinely find that when I practice with students (the right way with correcting hesitations as well as errors) even once, they suddenly pass or come very close. The quality of the practice is critical to learning to answer these facts without hesitation. If practice allows students to stop and figure out the fact every time they will take a very long time to get to knowing those facts instantly. If that is the case, if you practice orally with your son once or twice an evening at home, the right way, he will begin to pass every few days at school. He will finish addition this school year.

In third grade I recommend that all students start multiplication at the same time even if they have not “finished” subtraction. Multiplication facts are far more important, so subtraction facts can wait. If you closely follow your son’s progress in learning multiplication facts with Rocket Math, you can intervene in time to make sure he does not get frustrated or fall behind. It should take him three to five days to pass a level, but no longer than that. With some extra practice at home you can be sure he will be successful. Knowing basic facts instantly will be very important for him, so don’t give up!

Is Rocket Math frustrating your students?

If students (and parents) are really frustrated, Rocket Math is not being done the right way.

How should Rocket Math be done?

  • * Students should be practicing orally two or three minutes each day in school .
  • * Students should be practicing again at home for another two or three minutes.
  • * SOME students who need it, should be getting a second practice session during the day at school.
  • * When practicing the students should be saying the facts aloud and the answers.
  • * Students should be practicing with a partner who has an answer key.
  • * Partners should do the correction procedure if the student hesitates on any of the facts they are practicing.
  • * This practice should occur every day–not just once or twice a week.

With good practice several days running any child can learn those two new facts to automaticity and should be able to write the answers to those facts without hesitation–as fast as he or she can read the facts and write the answers. This is the point of Rocket Math and it works when done properly. How could this go wrong? Here are some things to look for that are WRONG!

  • * Testing only without the daily oral practice. Teachers sometimes prefer just giving tests and think this will accomplish the same thing, but it doesn’t. The learning occurs during the practice sessions with the partner. Without orally practicing students are not all going to progress as well as they should, and some will become very frustrated.
  • * Students who have bad habits that interfere with their ability to write quickly, such as erasing answers, counting on their fingers, looking at the clock, skipping around or writing answers in complicated patterns.
  • * Setting goals faster than students can actually write. (How this happens I haven’t a clue, but it does.) Students know the facts without hesitation but can’t write as fast as their goals demand. If they have practiced well for a few days and they can orally answer the facts without hesitation–giving 40 or more answers orally in one minute–reset their goals to what they have been doing and let them move on. Students don’t have to pass every day, but they should pass within six days.

Remember, the point is for students to practice the two new math facts on the sheet and add them to the ones they already know. As long as students can answer facts without hesitation (after reading the fact aloud they have the answer already in mind) then they know their facts well enough. This should not be driving anyone crazy and if we do it right it is fun and enjoyable–even though it is work.

Is a goal over 40 fair or necessary?

A parent asks:
Our daughter has a goal of 50 problems in a minute. She is finding that hard as more of the answers in multiplication have two digit answers. Is this normal, and if so, should her target be lowered as a result? I don’t want to challenge her below her abilities, but is she actually learning less if she is only required to answer 40 to pass instead of 50?

Dr. Don answers:
You are right that a student who can answer 40 problems in a minute knows their facts well enough. Initially we did not have any goals over 40, but we discovered that a lot of older students (4th grade and up) can write a lot faster and are capable of having higher goals than 40 and can achieve higher goals with 3 or 4 days of practice.

There is a caveat on goals over 40, that is in the FAQs/Teacher directions in Part K. Here it is:
Please note: There is a special exception for students who are such fast writers that they have goals OVER 40 in a minute. On the bottom of the Goal Sheet, please notice the exception for fast writers. Students who have goals over 40 should try to meet those goals, but only for up to six days. As long as they are answering over 40 problems per minute without errors, they should be passed after six days. It is nice for those who can write faster to have higher goals, but we don’t want it to slow them down too much.

I have had people suggest to me that because of more two digit answers later in the sequence in Multiplication it slows students down and therefore goals should be lowered.  I would say, there is a case for keeping goals the same rather than raising them.  Here’s what the data show in terms the number of two-digit answers out of the 63 answers on a test:
Set B zero, Set D 23, Set G 37, Set K 43, Set N 46, Set Q 49, Set T 50
So there is a bit of a case to be made for the extra digits, especially if goals are raised really high during Set A or B.  The writing speed test is 50% two digit answers, but by Set G in Multiplication the test is a higher percentage of two digit answers than that.  So keeping the goals the “same” in Multiplication in terms of problems still means the challenge is increasing in terms of digits.  Watch out for any students who cannot pass within six tries/days with good practice.

The next caveat is that being able to answer orally 40 problems in a minute (just saying the answers) is fast enough to indicate no hesitations. So either orally or in writing to do 40 problems in a minute indicates a student is at mastery. In either case we would want the student to take six tries to meet a higher than 40 goal if they can. As I said in another post, we want them to practice 3 or 4 days on a set before passing, so we don’t need to pass them along before that.

The question is whether she can weather three or four days of practice without feeling like a failure. She shouldn’t, but compared to the passing every day she was doing before, it might seem like it.  Building up her stamina and getting her to take 3 or 4 days of practice on each set is optimal.

Why raise student goals for passing?

A parent asks:
Why does the teacher keep raising our daughter’s goal every time she does better on a test? She now has a higher goal than any other child in her class, and she can’t pass in one or two days like she used to. She is getting discouraged. Is this fair? Is this what you recommend?

Dr. Don answers:
Yes, this is what I recommend. I explain the recommendation on the Rocket Math FAQs page, item K, “What do I do about fast writers, slow writers, and do goals ever change?”

Your daughter’s teacher is following the directions which do say to raise student’s goals when they demonstrate the ability to write faster.  Two things tell me it is a good idea for the teacher to raise your daughter’s goal.
1) Before her goals was raised, your daughter was passing much faster than we would like.  Remember, the goal of Rocket Math is that students should know these facts by heart for the rest of their lives, so extra practice is a good deal.  Students who learn an operation in one semester (about 90 school days) are learning as fast as is necessary–and that is practicing for 3 to 4 days on each set of facts before passing. Tell your daughter that you don’t want her to pass until she has practiced for at least three days.  Help her to be patient and be willing to practice a bit longer.
2) Your daughter has demonstrated she can write faster than we initially thought.  We begin by setting individualized goals based on the writing speed test.  When students demonstrate the ability to write faster, we raise their goals.   The goal is to for students to practice until they know the facts instantly, without any hesitation.
If a student can write faster, but has lower goals, that student can be hesitant on some facts, and still pass.  This is not good, because they won’t get as much practice on those facts as they should have.  Eventually after passing several levels even though the new facts were not fully mastered, the student hits the wall.  They are too slow on a bunch of facts, and there are too many now to be learned.  (We can’t learn ten or more similar things at the same time.)  This is when students get stuck and can no longer move ahead.  This is not good.  To prevent this we need students to answer all the facts as fast as they can write.  That means if the student demonstrates the ability to write faster than we initially thought, the student should be expected to answer facts at a faster rate than we initially expected.  This varies by student, as some students can write much faster than others.
To ensure that students are answering fact questions as fast as their fingers can carry them, we encourage teachers to raise the goals closer to what students have actually done.  As long as students can still pass in fewer than six days, that is acceptable and better for them than passing every day.  Students who pass every day aren’t getting as much practice as we’d like.
Once students have goals over 40 however, the rules change.  More on that in another post.

Motivating by creating success

Cool rewards, such a getting to make a human Rocket ship on the playground (above), work best if students expect to succeed.

There is sometimes a chicken-and-egg problem with rewards for success. If students are not being successful, just offering new rewards won’t necessarily motivate them. Especially if they have come to the point where they don’t expect to succeed. Then a two-pronged approach to motivation is needed.

A very smart instructional coach and principal I know, recently decided that Rocket Math was not progressing the way it should in their school. Students weren’t passing frequently enough, weren’t excited, and weren’t getting motivated. These two instructional leaders realized that their teachers needed help to effectively motivate their students AND they knew the students needed to experience more success to get motivated. So rather than just offer rewards, they set up special practice sessions so students could get “two-a-day” practices for a week.

The principal and instructional coach made a special challenge week (all 1st-5th grades in this school do Rocket Math). During this week each class had a second ten-minute time during the day for Rocket Math. Immediately after their first practice session of the day, the instructional coach and principal checked the folders of any students who thought they passed, so that if they did, they would re-fill their folders with the next set, allowing them to move on immediately during the second session. Students who didn’t pass knew they had a second chance that same day. At Rocket Math we know that two practice sessions in one day is very powerful and leads to faster learning! The instructional coach and principal also held some extra enthusiastic “Rocket to the Office” practice sessions for selected students who needed the extra boost.

Prizes were announced at the start of the challenge week. The student in each class who passed the most levels during the week would get a $10 Barnes and Noble gift card. The teacher whose class passed the most levels in the week won lunch on the principal. And the class that won (by passing the most levels) got a special secret prize, which you can see above. The picture was posted in the school newsletter, on the school website, and the school’s closed Facebook page.

The brilliant thing about the challenge week was that the excitement of the prizes were reinforced by the extra practice sessions, boosting success at the same time as providing extra motivation. That is effective instructional leadership, par excellence.

Getting stuck in Rocket Math Worksheet program–A solution

A teacher asks:
We have several students that are highly skilled in the math area but are also on the borders of perfectionism. They are having difficulty passing the writing “40” goal even though they all did more than that on their “Writing Speed Test.” They easily pass when they say them orally. What would be your recommendation to do with these students or tell their parents? The classroom teacher is willing to listen to each one of them to see if they can pass all levels on just one oral try but really doesn’t want all students or parents to start expecting this. He says these students are truly some of his top students (95th % on state standards).

Dr. Don answers:
Thanks for letting me know about their results in the Writing Speed test, and the fact that they can answer over 40 problems in one minute orally. This is clearly an example of my nice clean theory meeting the mess of reality. There is no logical reason why students who know the facts well enough to pass orally AND who have the handwriting skills to write the answers are not able to pass the written tests. It doesn’t make sense to hold them back from moving along and learning more facts if they are automatic with the facts–as demonstrated by the oral test on each level. The point of the Daily One Minute tests is to find out if the students know the facts without hesitation. If you know that is the case, you want to move them along to learn more facts, BUT…..
You want a policy that encourages students to pass the written test if they can at all, because that is more efficient and more fair. On the other hand you don’t want to hold students back completely if they really know the facts without hesitation.

Here is a possible policy that will balance the two. If a student feels he or she really knows a level, after two tries in class that student can choose to stay after school (or in at recess or come in early) and take another test with the teacher. [This allows the teacher to watch the student take the written test to see if there are any maladaptive behaviors such as erasing answers or skipping around that are causing the problem.] Then if the student doesn’t pass on the written test, the teacher can then listen to the student orally say the answers and if the student answers more than 40 problems in a minute, award the level as passed. One level at a time.
The students still have to try in class two days and try once more after class, but then can move on if they really know the facts. This puts some of the burden on the students.  We want to be sure they aren’t just doing it orally because it is easier and gives them more attention. This two tries policy gives them an opportunity to save themselves some time if they can pass in writing, but ensures that they move along as they need to academically. It also allows the teacher to watch the written testing to see what is going on there.  I think it will seem fair to the other students (who are passing in writing) because these students are not getting a special pass–instead they are having to come in on their own time to do this.
As I noted in another post it is extremely important to preserve the value of doing the work to pass the levels in Rocket Math. The work and the level playing field makes the whole exercise of Rocket Math meaningful and valuable. Don’t let anyone pass levels without doing the practice and taking the tests on each level. Otherwise you make the other students feel like dopes for having to work at it when others get it for “free.”

Must students say math facts in a certain order?

It is actually more important than you might think, that students practice by reading facts in a consistent way.

Rachel asks:
Hi Don,
After using Rocket Math for a week, I have a question. My daughter often reverses the order of the numbers when reading off the facts (i.e. 1+5 when it’s really 5+1). Of course, this doesn’t affect the answer in addition, but I wondered if I should correct her? She sometimes does it upwards of 50% of the time. Anyway, I just wondered if I should be concerned about her reversing the numbers, and if so what I should do about it.   Thanks, Rachel

Dr. Don answers:

If I were still running a school I would be offering you a teaching job right now! What a good question! So your daughter is doing something that most people do, which is trying to simplify the task and ignore the difference in the order. Because 5+2 and 2+5 are both 7 why not just think of them as the same thing?***

However, there is a risk. If a student always says “five plus two is seven” and never says it the other way around they will not have the jingle-like memory of “Two plus five is…seven” in their brain. Then when they encounter 2 + 5 and read it aloud to themselves the answer won’t pop into mind automatically. They would probably puzzle a second, realize it is the same as 5+2 and then know the answer is seven, but it won’t be automatic. [That by the way is what I’m trying to illustrate in the picture above, which isn’t Rachel’s daughter!] We want that automatic answer to pop into mind, unbidden, without having to think about it. In other words, we want it so that when your daughter says to herself, “Two plus five is…” the answer “seven” pops into her mind without having to think about it.

Whew, this is a lot of rationale, but I know you can follow me. This means that you want to treat reading the problem in the wrong order as an error. When she reads the problem in the wrong order (says “Two plus five is seven” when the problem reads 5+2) correct by saying the problem in the correct order with the answer. You say, “Five plus two is seven.” This, by the way is why our correction procedure is for the checker to say the whole problem and the answer, so the checker can correct the order of reading the problem without causing confusion. Then have her repeat it three times and go back three problems.

She of course, will tell you, “But, it’s the same!” Just reply with, “You have to say it the way it is written.” You can tell her I said so!

PS. When you get to multiplication, this gets even more tricky, because there’s a good case to be made for reading multiplication fact problems up, because that’s how we say them when we are doing multi-digit multiplication problems. But that is a whole other blog!

***Interestingly, when doing the Rocket Math app, the learner/player is presented with both facts in the same set–mixed between the two as they are being learning. When I am playing the app, I find I can’t remember if I got both of those to answer or just one. Although the app gives both, I just put them together in my mind to make it easier, and don’t even notice the order.

Are extra practice sessions helpful?

More practice is helpful as long as it is motivating.

Rachel asks:
When doing Rocket Addition with my daughter: I plan to do 2 three-minute practice sessions during our school day with the one-minute timing after the second one. Then, if she doesn’t pass, should I have her work on those facts again in the evening, perhaps with Dad? Or do we just pick up again the next day?

I’m encouraged to hear that with enough time and practice she will be able to memorize math facts to automaticity. This is good news and motivation for me to keep working with her. Memorizing has always come easily for me, and I’ve tried many different techniques while remaining at a loss as to how to help her. After reading the teacher directions, I can see that I was introducing new facts too quickly, before the others were completely memorized. I love how helpful and directive Rocket Math is! Thanks again.

Dr. Don answers:
As for another session with Dad in the evening, it will only be beneficial if it is motivating and that depends on how you structure it and how she perceives it. It could be punishing or it could be a motivating treat. If she has some control over whether or not to do it, but she is “allowed” if she wants to show Dad how well she can do them (and more importantly he reciprocates by being impressed!) then by all means, “let” her do that. Also, if she doesn’t pass her test after the second session, and she wants to, she could have a special bonus chance to try to pass with Dad, but that would mean practice AND a test with him. Either of those scenarios could make the extra practice session in the evening a motivating treat and that would be good. If she perceives it as no fun and extra work when she should be enjoying time with her father, then don’t do it.

Oh, and in that regard do have her fill in her Rocket Chart and color in the levels as she passes them. That’s definitely something to show Dad when he comes home. And take a look at the Achievement Awards and use them from time to time.

By the way, as someone who has struggled with sport-like skills my whole life, it was a huge revelation to me that I could learn to do things if I was willing to work longer and harder and more consistently at it than anyone else. Knowing that I could develop mastery was the prerequisite to be motivated enough to persevere until I got there. If you can help her persevere until she masters these things you can help her develop the perseverance habit itself–which is way more important than math facts. You’ll need to be impressed with her hard work and mightily impressed by her accomplishments but once she sees for herself that she can achieve difficult things if she perseveres, she has learned a most important life lesson.

How much practice is enough in Rocket Writing for Numerals?

Students balance a desire for comfortable mastery against a desire for novelty.

A home-schooling mom asks:
After having read the Rocket Writing for Numerals teacher’s directions, I have a question about implementation: Should I have her do the same page twice in one day (at separate times) to help her get more practice? After re-reading the teacher directions again today, I also think I need to go back and do more demonstration and air writing.

Dr. Don answers:
Regarding Rocket Writing for Numerals, the focus of the air writing and demonstrations is to achieve accuracy and consistency in the way to form the numeral. Once she consistently knows how to form the letter (starting in the right place, making the strokes in the right direction, etc) then the rest is developing the motor skills. More air writing is not needed once formation is consistently correct.

Yes, you can have her do a page twice in a day. How many days in a row is needed before you can move on to a new page is not established by research. It would be different for each student anyway. If you watch her, then you can decide, or you can encourage her to decide.

You want a page to become easy or routine for her. She doesn’t have to do it perfectly, but don’t move on if she still seems to be struggling or having to go very slowly. You should move on if she seems to be unchallenged by the page. You can also engage her in deciding if she feels she is ready to go on to the next sheet or wants to practice on the same page some more. Generally, once children get the idea of what it feels like to master a performance, they want to do so and students balance that desire for comfortable mastery against a desire for novelty. My favorite image is of skateboarders in the park who practice and practice until they have a particular move down–but then move on to try something new when they think they have it.

Can you test Rocket Math orally?

Students with difficulty writing can take Rocket Math tests orally.

Rachel writes:
Hi Don,
My seven year old daughter has dyslexia and dysgraphia, and perhaps some ADD/ADHD. I’ve been wondering if I could test Rocket Addition or Subtraction with her orally while we are working on her writing speed? We homeschool, so I would be doing it with her one-on-one anyway. If doing it orally is possible, then how do I calculate the number she should be expected to answer correctly in a minute? Her Rapid Automatic Naming rate is quite slow. Would that factor in? Also, should I go back to addition, or start with subtraction since that is what we are working on now? I hadn’t planned to move past addition until she had all her facts memorized, but when we had her tested for learning disabilities, the consultant suggested to let her move forward with concepts while still working on facts. Thank you for your help.

P.S. I got a universal subscription to Rocket Math and started with Rocket Writing for Numerals since her writing rate was way too slow to continue with facts. I would like to continue with Rocket Writing for Numerals because I see the value in gaining automaticity in writing numerals.

Dr. Don answers:
Can you test Rocket Math orally? Yes, you can. When you give the one-minute test have your daughter simply tell you the answer to the items in the test. She does not have to read the problems, just say the answers to the problems in order. The expectation is 40 problems in a minute because handwriting is not an issue. Once she says the answer to 40 problems in a minute she has passed that level.

By the way, if you are practicing with her there might be a temptation to keep practicing for a long period of time. Please don’t. No more than about 3 minutes at a time is optimal. You can take a 15 minute break and then do another 3 minute session, but don’t ever go over 5 minutes at a time. It is very hard mental work and needs to be done in short segments or it will become very punishing AND her performance will begin to deteriorate.

I recommend mastering addition before beginning subtraction–because the two are so close. Doing both at the same time will cause proactive and retroactive inhibition (a special kind of confusion). See my blog on that. If you are in the middle of subtraction already, stay in that operation. If you haven’t started subtraction, don’t until addition is mastered (passing Level Z!). Yes, move on with concepts. Concepts would be other things like how to figure out subtraction problems with counters, or how to borrow. Memorizing subtraction facts is not a concept, it’s a skill, so you should wait on that!

Interesting that you bring up her Rapid Automatic Naming. It is my opinion that Rapid Automatic Naming is a trainable skill as well as handwriting speed. Much easier for some students–who need little training–than it is for others, but trainable nonetheless. She probably will take more practice to get to the level of automaticity that is more easily reached by others, but that doesn’t mean it is not achievable. What’s more, since automaticity with math facts is necessary to allow her to concentrate on higher order issues in math, she has to reach the same level of automaticity as others, so she can concentrate, even if it does take longer to get there.

This same principle applies in other tool skills such as decoding (or typing) as well. Just because it is more work for a child to come to automaticity in decoding does not change the fact that automaticity in decoding is a necessary prerequisite for full comprehension of what is being read. It took me many hours of extra practice after school to become as automatic at touch typing as the girls in my typing class-but I still had to reach the same milestones or I wouldn’t be able to touch type today.