Teach Multiplication Facts to Struggling Pre-Algebra Students

You want your middle-grade students to complete the pre-algebra math topics so they are ready to begin to study algebra in 8th or 9th grade. A disheartening number of middle-grade students have not memorized basic multiplication facts (times tables). Students must know multiplication facts to follow, absorb, and implement pre-algebra topics.  How to teach multiplication facts to struggling students? How can a teacher help their struggling students learn multiplication facts when a lot of their students do not need to do that work? 

Rocket Math Online Game includes learning tracks for pre-algebra skills as well as basic multiplication and division facts. Within the Rocket Math Online Game, teachers assign students the learning tracks that they most need.


Math Strategies for Struggling Students

a student who does not know her math facts is counting on her fingers.

Students who do not know their multiplication facts are constantly distracted from learning math strategies by having to stop and “figure out” basic facts. Every time they are asked to provide the answer to a multiplication fact, they have to turn their attention to working it out or looking it up. By the time they have gone through their process, they have lost the thread of the strategy they are supposed to be learning. The most important thing a math teacher can do for struggling math students is to help them bring math facts to automaticity. Then answering math fact questions no longer interferes with learning multi-step strategies for solving math problems. 


Why Multiplication facts are Important to Learn Before Middle School Math

A student sits frustrated in class because he doesn't understand his basic math facts.

Many pre-algebra math topics assume students have a ready knowledge of multiplication facts to even understand. When I was a middle-grade teacher, my remedial students were unable to follow or understand topics such as Finding factor pairs, reducing fractions, equivalent fractions, converting fractions, unlike fractions, and so on. I realized that it was because they did not know basic multiplication facts. When I reduced 8/24 to ⅓ it was like magic because they did not quickly recognize the multiplication facts involved. They didn’t understand the concepts we were trying to learn because they did not see the relationships they were supposed to know. When I asked them to think of the factor pairs of 36 they were unable to find them all, no matter how much time I gave them. While students can do multi-digit multiplication problems using a times table chart, it does them no good in pre-algebra topics because it takes too long, even if they know what to look up. Now let’s look at how to teach multiplication to struggling students using Rocket Math Worksheets or Rocket Math Online Game. 


How to Teach Multiplication to Struggling Students Using Rocket Math

Two students use Rocket Math Worksheets to practice their math facts.

Students who have not yet mastered multiplication facts are going to require a very effective teaching methodology to learn them. The haphazard, leave-it-up-to-the-student methods have already failed them. By now, these students lack confidence in their ability to learn the facts, so you need a sure-fire system. 

Rocket Math is just such a system. Both the Worksheet Program and the Online Game systematically introduce students to the facts in a careful sequence that they can do. The Worksheet Program and Online Game ask students to memorize only two facts and their reverses at a time.  

Students demonstrate mastery of those facts by answering them without hesitation. Then Rocket Math will add two more facts and their reverses. Small steps at a time, systematically the students can memorize the facts and answer them instantly from memory. If students practice every day, within a few weeks you’ll see a dramatic improvement in their recall of multiplication facts. 

But what about the students who already know their multiplication facts? Rocket Math has something for them as well. 


Rocket Math Programs for Advanced Students 

Teachers can assign Rocket Math as a 10-minute warm-up or cool down for all their students whether they are behind or advanced. Rocket Math has several pre-algebra topics for those students who already know their multiplication facts. Each of these topics will help them do pre-algebra processes more fluently and to quickly recognize relationships that they have memorized.


Learning Track 13: Identifying Fractions

Screenshot of Rocket Math Online Game for identifying fractions.When students initially learn about fractions they are often only shown proper fractions. As a result, they have a limited understanding of fractions and can be confused by improper fractions or mixed numbers. The Rocket Math programs (both Worksheet and Online) prevent this problem.  From the start, we teach students using examples of both proper and improper fractions as well as whole numbers and mixed numbers. Students learn to identify over 90 different fractions quickly and easily by getting lots of practice. Their understanding of fractions will deepen and become more flexible as they learn to recognize many examples of fractions.


Learning Track 14: Equivalent Fractions

Screenshot of Rocket Math Online Game of Equivalent Fractions practice.Students will memorize the most common equivalent fractions with this Rocket Math Learning Track. They will also learn to identify a number of fractions, such as 2/9,  that do not “reduce” or for which there are no equivalent fractions in lower terms. Students also learn to recognize a fraction equal to 1 whole in its various forms. When students don’t instantly know the answer they are told the equivalent fraction and given practice on it. The computer gives help in the Online Game.  Their partner gives that help in the Worksheet Program. By the end of the program, students will learn over 90 equivalent fractions. This gives students an excellent start on being able to manipulate fractions quickly and easily.


Learning Track 15: Factors & Primes

factors and primes game screensStudents are required to “find the factors” when dealing with unlike fractions and reducing fractions. Rocket Math Worksheet and Online Game teach students how to find factor pairs. Students learn how to find all the factor pairs and what they all are for many common numbers. They also learn to identify prime numbers and their characteristic of having only one and themselves as factors. Students learn the factor pairs in order and know the “last” factor pair when they see it. When the game asks “What’s next?” students can provide the next pair of factors or click the checkmark to indicate there are no more factors. When students go through this Learning Track they will no longer hesitate when asked for the factors of common numbers.


Learning Track 16: Fraction & Decimal Equivalents

Screenshot of Rocket Math Online Game of Fraction & Decimal Equivalents practice.

Common fraction and decimal equivalents should not require a laborious process to “figure out.” Students should just know these, so this Learning Track in the Online Game allows them to memorize a bunch of common decimal and fraction equivalents. Having a facility with a lot of fraction and decimal equivalents means faster computation as well as a way to check their process when manipulating fractions and decimals. Students also learn another essential pre-algebra skill that often confuses them.  They learn to correctly and fluently translate a fraction into a division problem and vice-versa.

“Test Drive” any of the 16 Learning Tracks in our Online Game demo accounts. 

Register for a 14-day free trial of Online Game for all your students

Explore the options for subscribing to the Worksheet Program.

Strategies for teaching automaticity of math facts

Above are students playing our Race for the Stars game.  This game prompts everyone to race against each other and the clock to answer 24 fact problems as fast as they can.  This activity can help develop automaticity of math facts. Not all activities in which students “practice” answering math facts will help develop automaticity.  In fact, a lot of math fact practice activities require students to “figure out” math facts over and over. Automaticity only comes about through recall.  Recall is instantaneous, whereas “figuring out” takes time. All the activities that give students “time” to derive the fact will not help develop automaticity.

What is automaticity?

high school marching band with brass instruments and drumsAutomaticity is the level of learning you have achieved when you can do something accurately and quickly while you are doing something else.  It is “automatic” because you don’t have to stop and think about it; you can do it while concentrating on something else. As the picture illustrates, you need to develop automaticity to function in a marching band, which is why it takes a lot of practice.  You have to march while simultaneously playing music and keep up with everyone else. That takes automaticity.


What is automaticity good for?

tools to build math fact fluencyIn academics, students use certain “tool skills” while they are multitasking.  These tool skills must become automatic so students can use them without thinking.  One tool skill is decoding in reading–getting the words off the page. That has to be automatic so the reader can focus on the message of the material they are reading.  Spelling is another tool skill that has to be automatic. A student who is writing something should not be distracted by trying to remember how to spell the words they are writing.


Why is automaticity of math facts important?

A student figuring out math facts slowlyIn math, the tool skill that must be automatic is remembering math facts.  Students must be able to recall the answer to single digit facts like 9 + 7 while simultaneously doing more complex problems.  They need to be able to recall those facts without losing their place in what they are computing, just like a member of a marching band.

No matter how clever the strategy for remembering a math fact, if it is not recalled instantly and automatically, it disrupts the thinking process of the learner.  The steps in the overall math procedure will become confusing, or the point of the computation may be lost. Strategies for developing automaticity must guard against allowing students to repeatedly “figure out” facts and must direct them to “just remember” the fact.  This can be a surprise for some teachers and some students!

Practice strategies that develop automaticity of math facts

Two students participating in one of Rocket Math's math fluency programsStudents can recall some facts instantly but have not yet learned others enough to be recalled instantly.  New math facts are learned one at a time. Although most students can work on memorizing three or four new facts at a time, if the facts are too similar, even three will be too many.

The best method of practice is to read problems aloud and say the answer from memory.  If there is any hesitation after the problem is read aloud (which gives the learner enough time to remember) then extra practice is needed on that fact.  The procedure should happen immediately, as there is no time to waste. The learner needs to understand that the goal is to instantly recall facts, rather than puzzle them out. 

Figuring out math facts will not develop automaticity

Rocket Math mobile math fact game interfaceAllowing students extended time to work out the answer to a math fact teaches the wrong lesson.  If there is any hesitation in answering, extra practice should involve being told the fact and the answer immediately (no more puzzling it out, is the message!).  After hearing the correct answer, the learner should say the problem and the answer aloud two or three times. They should then go on and practice two or three different problems before returning to the problem that the learner was slow to answer.  And finally, the learner should try to answer the first math fact again, this time without any hesitation. This process of being told the answer, trying to commit it to memory and trying to recall it a few seconds later will develop automaticity of math facts. Consistently allowing students extended time to figure out facts will not lead to automaticity.

Similarly, the Rocket Math Online Game only allows students 3 seconds to input an answer.  If they can’t answer instantly, automatically, then the game shows, “Time’s Up!”  and Mission Control says, “You gotta be faster!” Next, the game gives the student extra practice on that fact and starts them over in the part.  The game expects automaticity of math facts and teaches students that they can in fact do that.

Students will be able to remember and recall the answer, as long as only a couple of new facts are introduced at a time.  They will come to realize that instant recall is possible, and that is their goal. Once they can recall facts without having to figure them out, math will become a breeze.

Use Rocket Math’s automatic response worksheets for testing not teaching

The Rocket Math Worksheet Program has students practice in pairs as described above.  Then each day the pair will do timed or “automatic response” worksheets—but as a test.  The worksheets proceed from A to Z as students learn more facts in the operation. Each worksheet only tests the facts introduced thus far.  Students practice the same set of facts, using the oral procedure outlined above until all of the facts introduced thus far are automatic.

Rocket Math Addition Set D Worksheet that develops automaticity of math factsWhat facts are on each math worksheet matter.  A worksheet cannot contain a mix of all of the facts in an operation; you cannot expect facts to become automatic by doing the sheet repetitively. No one can learn 80 facts at once.  The curriculum must break down the facts in an operation into bite-size pieces so that students can practice and learn them. You see here set D, which has added 7+1 and 8+1 and their reverses as new facts.  The One-Minute Test only presents the facts learned up through set D. For the first couple of days, the student will not be able to answer all the facts instantly; but after a few days of practice, the students will be automatic with all the facts.  Then the student will pass the set. The curriculum should add more facts to be learned in the next set.

Slow and steady wins the race. It takes months to learn all of the facts in an operation to the level of automaticity, but everyone can do it.