## Math teaching strategies #3: Teach computation procedures using consistent language

### Improv can be entertaining, but it will frustrate students trying learn a procedure.

Much of math, and especially computation, is about learning a process or a set of procedures. [I am assuming you are practical enough to know that we cannot expect elementary aged children to re-discover all of mathematics on their own, as some people recommend.]

Learning a procedure means knowing “What’s next?”  If you ever learned a procedure (for example a recipe) you know that it is between steps, when you ask yourself, “What’s next?” that you need help from the written recipe.  Students are no different.  Just showing them what to do is usually not enough for them to be able to follow in your footsteps.  You need to teach them the steps of the procedure.  As with anything you teach, you are going to confuse your students if you do things in a different order, or with different words, or different steps.  What you call things, and some of how you explain yourself, and some of the sequence of doing the procedure is arbitrary.  If you are improvising you will do things differently each time and your students will be confused.  At a minimum you need  it written down.

## Math teaching strategy: Use a script or a process chart to keep the instructions consistent.

We know a lot about how to help students learn a procedure.  We know we need to consistently follow the same set of steps in the same order, until students have learned it.  We know we need to explicitly tell students the decisions they must make while working so they know what to do and when, in other words, we have to make our thinking process overt.  We know we need to be consistent in our language of instruction so that students benefit from repetition of examples.  And finally, we know we need to careful in our selection of problems so that we demonstrate with appropriate examples how the new process works and where it does not work.

Guess what?  You can’t do all of that when you are improvising your instruction and making up the directions on the fly. To be able to do all that, you need a script and pre-selected examples.  Many teachers have been taught to use a chart of steps, posted in their classroom, to which they refer as they model a procedure.  The same effect can be achieved with a script, so that the teacher uses the same wording along with the same steps in the same order.  If you improvise, it won’t always be the same, which will confuse your students.

You have to learn when and how to make decisions.  Every math procedure involves looking at the situation and making decisions about what and how to do what needs to be done.  You have to know what operation to use, when to borrow, when to carry, where to write each digit and so on.  Because you as the teacher already know how to do the procedure, it is tricky to remember to explain your thinking.

## Math teaching strategy: Teach a consistent rule for every decision students must make.

Good teaching involves first explaining your decision-making and then giving your students practice in making the right decision in the given circumstances and finally to make them explain why–using the rule you used in the first place.   First, you teach something like, “Bigger bottom borrows” to help students decide when to borrow.  Then you prompt them to explain how they know whether or not to borrow.  All of that should be asked and answered in the right place and at the right time.  A script or a posted process chart will help you remember all the decisions that have to be made, and what to look at to make the right one.  Without a script it is very unlikely that you will remember the exact wording each time.  You need a script to be able to deliver consistent language of instruction.

## Math teaching strategy: Plan ahead to carefully choose the right examples.

With some math procedures it is quite hard to choose the right examples.  The fine points can be obscured when the examples the teacher happens to come up with, are not quite right.  The examples may be an exception or handled differently in a way the procedure has not taught.  So for example borrowing across a zero is different than across other numerals so the numbers in a minuend must be chosen carefully rather than off the cuff.

Also, when teaching a procedure it is essential to teach when to use the procedure and when not to use that procedure.  It is important that the teacher present “non-examples,” that is, problems in which you don’t follow that procedure.  I have seen students who are taught, for example, borrowing, using only examples that need borrowing.  Then they turn around and borrow in every problem–because that is what they were taught.  They should have been taught with a few non-examples mixed in, that is, problems where borrowing wasn’t necessary so they learned correctly when to borrow as well as how to borrow.   Choosing teaching examples on the fly will often end up with more confusion rather than less.

If it bothers you to see students as frustrated as the one above, then find* or write out a script for teaching computation so that you can be consistent and effective.  Trust me, your students will love you for it.

* You may want to look at the “Learning Computation” programs within the Rocket Math Universal subscription.  Here are links to blogs on them:  Addition, Subtraction, and Multiplication.  These are sensible, small steps, clearly and consistently scripted so each skill builds on the next.

## Math Teaching strategies #5: Separate the introduction of similar concepts

### Teaching two similar concepts and their vocabulary terms at the same time creates confusion.

The classic example is teaching parallel and perpendicular on the same day.  The two concepts have to do with orientation of lines and the new vocabulary terms for them are similar.  So teaching them at the same time means some or many students will have the two terms confused for a long time.  That is known as a chronic confusion–possibly permanent.  They will know that orientation of lines is one of those two terms, possibly, but will be confused about which is which.  The predictable conversation with the teacher goes thusly:

Teacher:  See these two lines lines.  Are they parallel or perpendicular?

Student: I think they’re perpendicular.

Teacher: Well…

Student: No, wait! I know.  They’re parallel.

Teacher: Yes, you’re right.  I’m glad you’ve learned that.

In case you missed it, the above student did NOT know the correct term.  The student just knew it was one of two terms, but unsure as to which one.  So the student picked one and as soon as there wasn’t confirmation by the teacher, switched to the other term.  When you’re busy teaching it is easy to get fooled by that kind of response into assuming the students really did learn it.

Other examples abound in math.  Teaching numerator and denominator in the same lesson is common.  Teaching the terms proper fractions and improper fractions on the same day is another example.  Acute and obtuse angles are yet another pair of chronically confused concepts that are introduced simultaneously.

## Math teaching strategies: Separate the introduction of similar concepts in time.

If you teach one concept and only one of the pair, there’s no cause for confusion.  It will still take a lot of repetition and practice for it to be cemented into memory, but students will be clear.  If they use the term, for example parallel a lot of times in conjunction with examples they will soon (in a couple of weeks) be able to recall.  However, you should pair the concept with non-examples of the concept.  Not the opposite necessarily but just not an example of the concept.

For example: For the picture to the right you would ask the students.

A “Are the two lines in item A parallel or not parallel?”   Ans: Not parallel.

B “Are the two lines in item B parallel or not parallel?”   Ans: Parallel.

C “Are the two lines in item C parallel or not parallel?”   Ans: Not parallel.

Then after a couple of weeks you could introduce perpendicular.  Again teach it on its own and then contrasted with non-examples until the vocabulary was clear. Probably for a couple of weeks.   Only then can you combine both terms in the same lesson.

Another advantage of this approach is that you have avoided the other common mistake.  Students sometimes come to the conclusion that all pairs of lines are either parallel or perpendicular.  This method of introducing the concepts helps them realize that there are non-examples of each concept, parallel lines and ones that aren’t as well as perpendicular lines and ones that aren’t as well.

## Rocket Math: Can students really learn this way? (It seems too easy.)

### At first, it may seem like the way Rocket Math presents the same simple facts over and over, is so easy it must be a waste of time.

But like anything you learn, you have to start where it seems easy and then build up to where it is hard.  Rocket Math has been effective helping students learn their math facts for over 20 years.  It is designed according to scientifically designed learning principles, which is why it works, if students will work it.  Rocket Math carefully and slowly introduces facts to learn in such a way that students can achieve fluency with each set of facts as they progress through the alphabet A through Z.  Let me explain.

In the Take-Off phase the student is introduced to the two new facts and their reverses.  That’s all the student has to answer.  But the student has to answer each one instantly.  If the student is hesitant on any of those facts (or makes an error) then they have to Start Over and do the Take-Off phase over again.  They have to do 12 in a row without an error or a hesitation.  Once the Take-Off phase is passed the student goes into the Orbit phase, where there is a mix of recently introduced facts along with the new facts.  The student has to answer up to 30 facts, and is allowed only two errors or hesitations. After the third error or hesitation the student has to Start Over on the Orbit Phase.  Once the Orbit phase is passed, the student goes on to the Universe phase, which mixes up all the facts learned so far and presents them randomly.  Again the student has to do up to 30 problems and can only hesitate on 2 or them or he or she has to start over.  But once the student proves that all of those facts can be answered without hesitation, the game moves on to the next level, introducing two more facts and their reverses.
In the Worksheet Program, students practice with a partner.  In the Online Game the student practices with the computer.  In both versions of Rocket Math the students follow the same careful sequence and slowly, but successfully build mastery of all of the facts in an operation.  It’s hard work and takes a while, but we try to make it fun along the way.  It will work for everybody, but not everybody is willing to do the work.  At least, now you understand how Rocket Math is designed so it can teach mastery of math facts.

## Dictating Sentences, do students need automaticity in spelling too?

Few teachers realize how similar spelling and math facts are.

Both spelling and math facts are tool skills. Tool skills are things which one needs to do academic work, tools you use to do other things.  The tool skills of spelling and math facts (like decoding) need to become so automatic that students don’t have to think about them.

If students have to think up the answer to math facts, it makes doing computation harder.  The process of figuring out a math fact distracts from the mathematics being done.  Similarly, if you have to stop and think of the spelling of a word (like the boy pictured above) while you are trying to write, it distracts you from thinking about what you are trying to write.  Students are more successful and better able to show what they know and better able to focus on learning when their tool skills have developed to the level of automaticity.

Daily practice develops automaticity.  Developing automaticity with math facts and with spelling requires a lot of practice.  Daily practice is best and a few minutes a day is optimal.  That is why Rocket Math is designed the way it is–to provide that daily practice.  So Dictating Sentences gives each member of the pair ten minutes a day of practice writing sentences composed of words they know how to spell.

Dictating Sentences is spelling with a twist.  Instead of spelling one word at a time, in Dictating Sentences (now part of the Universal Level Rocket Math Worksheet Program) students are asked to write an entire sentence from memory.  They work in pairs and their tutor has the student repeat the sentence until it is learned.  Then the student has to write the whole sentence from memory.  It turns out this is considerably harder than writing words on a spelling test, so it is challenging practice, and does a lot to help students develop automaticity with spelling.

Working in pairs.  As you know from Rocket Math practice, students enjoy working in pairs.  And when one partner has an answer key the practice can be checked and corrected.  Sound research shows that immediate correction and editing of misspelled words is the fastest way to learn the correct spelling, so that’s what we have the student tutor do.  After each sentence is written every word is checked and practiced again until it is correct.

Mastery learning. The program is structure so that all the words are learned to the level of automaticy.  Students keep working on a sentence until it can be written without any errors.  They work on the same lesson for as many days as is needed for them to spelling every word perfectly in all three sentences.  Each sentence persists for two or three lessons, so that the student is required to write it from memory and spell every word perfectly for several days in a row.

Earning points by being correct and going fast.  Students earn two points for every word that is spelling correctly the first time.  Every word on which there is an error is worked on until it too can be spelled correctly, earning one point.  The faster students go during their ten minutes, the more points they can earn.  Students graph the amount of points earned and try to beat their own score from previous days.  Teams can be set up and competition for the glory of being on the winning team can enhance the motivation.

Individual Placement.  There is a placement test.  Students begin at the level where they first make a mistake.  Student partners do not need to be at the same level, so every student can be individually placed at the level of success.

## What if teachers won’t do Rocket Math?

### Don’t argue, just prove it works!

How can we encourage the teacher who refuses rocket math and administration does not reinforce (or enforce) the program’s use?

Dr. Don’s response:

Joyce,

This is a great question.  Frankly, one of the most annoying things I found during my time as a teacher were the constant “new” fads.  I got sick and tired of being told to do things I knew would not work.  I don’t blame people for being skeptical or an administration that won’t go to bat for a new curriculum.  I think it is the responsible thing to do. Which is why schools should test everything for themselves, which isn’t that hard to do.  Prove to yourself it works with your students in your school with your staff.  Then you know it is worth doing.  Only then do you have a responsibility to reinforce the program’s use, only after it is proven.
In one of the first schools to use Rocket Math we had a veteran teacher who said she did not think Rocket Math would be any better than the things she had been doing to help her students learn math facts for years.  The principal wisely allowed as how that might be possible, but asked if she would be willing to test her assertion.  Rocket Math has 2-minute timings of all the facts which the students take every couple of weeks.  The principal asked if she would give that test to her students at the beginning and the end of the year and compare her results with that of other classes.  She agreed.  At the end of year the Rocket Math students were far higher in their fluency than her students, even though at the beginning of the year her students had been more fluent than the other students.  At that point she said, “Well this proves it to me.  I’ll be using Rocket Math next year.”
Just use those 2-minute timings as pre and post tests and see if there is anything that will beat Rocket Math.  Any teacher worth their salt should want to use a curriculum that is effective and helps students learn.
I have the following standing offer on my website.  If any school will conduct research comparing Rocket Math to some other method of practicing math facts and share your results–I will refund half of the purchase price of the curriculum.  If a school finds some other method is more effective, I will refund 100% of your purchase price.

## Intervention Tip: Have students practice test

Sometimes students need to review test problems also.

You know that there is a difference between the test problems and the practice problems, right?  The problems practiced around the outside are the recently introduced facts.  The problems inside the test box are an even mix of all the problems taught so far.  Sometimes students have forgotten some of the older facts.  For example, if there has been a break for a week or more, or if the student has been stuck for a couple of weeks, the student may have forgotten some of the facts from earlier and may need a review of the test problems.

How you could diagnose for this problem.  Have the student practice orally on the test problems inside the box with you.  If the student hesitates on several of the problems that aren’t on the outside practice, then the student needs to review the test items.

Solution. If you have this problem with quite a few students (for example after summer break or after Christmas break) then have the whole class do this solution.  For the next week, after practicing around the outside, instead of taking the 1 minute test in writing, have students practice the test problems orally with each other.  Use the same procedures as during the practice—two or three minutes with answer keys for the test, saying the problem and the answer aloud, correction procedures for hesitations, correct by saying the problem and answer three times, then going back—then switch roles.   Do this for a week and then give the one-minute test.   Just about everyone should pass at that point.

Solution.  If you have this problem with a handful of students, find a time during the day for them to practice the test problems orally in pairs.  If the practice occurs before doing Rocket Math so much the better, but it will work if done after as well.  They should keep doing this until they pass a couple of levels within six days.

If neither the first or the second solutions seem to work, write to me again and I’ll give you some more ideas.

## Four star rating for Rocket Math Apps

### Rocket Math App received 4 Stars!

App Names: Rocket Math Add at Home, Add at School, Multiply at Home, and Multiply at School

Developer’s name: Rocket Math, LLC

Primary School Apps (5-7 Years)

## Educational App Store Review

Rocket Math is an offshoot of an existing programme for schools designed to increase children’s speed and fluency in answering simple arithmetic. This app encourages frequent short sessions and is supported by plenty of information explaining its purpose and methods.

The purpose of Rocket Math is to build what its developer terms “automaticity” in arithmetic. A fluent reader does not need to decode simple and frequently encountered words letter by letter. The same can be true for frequently encountered arithmetic.

When automaticity is achieved in arithmetic the answers are available in an instant. The advantages of this, beyond speed, are that it leaves more of the person’s mental processes available for other aspects of the problem. If a person does not have to think about achieving simple arithmetic answers, he or she can concentrate on the more complex and lengthier aspects of a problem.

Rocket Math the app follows on from a well-established programme of the same name based on traditional written resources. Repeat practice and a steady increase in the breadth of the covered arithmetic are at the heart of its methods.

Children are taken through a series of stages in which they are faced with a rapid succession of arithmetic questions. Remember, the purpose of this app is to build fluency in frequently encountered arithmetic problems, not complex ones. As such, the questions will be simple ones and, at first, until the breadth expands, there will be little variation in them. Only three seconds is allowed per question so, for some children, developing enough fluency to progress will be difficult but others will thrive on the challenge.

Answers are given by typing them onto a built-in number pad. The app is simple to use and looks attractive. Its space-travel styling and theme add a game-like feel although it is not a game. Speech provides a response to incorrect answers and provides encouragement between levels. It all works very well and provides the exact type of practice that it promises.

An unusual but useful feature is that the app enforces its little-and-often recommendations by insisting on a thirty-minute break after 5 minutes of play. As multiple sessions are likely to yield better results than a single, marathon session, this is an excellent feature that will prevent children from relying on a last-minute catch-up rather than a steady engagement with the app. This, combined with a useful breakdown of each child’s performance in the student report screen, provides reassurance to adults that their children are making the best possible use of the app.

A family of apps is available and potential buyers should think about which they need. Two of the apps cover addition and subtraction and two cover multiplication and division. Your choice here is obviously dependent on what aspect you would like to cover.

The remaining choice is between a school and a home version. They are identical in functionality except that the home version is free to download with a lengthy trial period. The school version has a flat, one-off, fee. Prospective teachers would still be wise to download the home version first so that they can appraise the app’s suitability.

If they choose to utilise the app within their school then buying the school version will be a simpler process than the in-app purchase of the home version. It will also allow schools to utilise the volume purchasing programme whereby they can receive a discount for buying twenty or more of the same app.

Parents will be pleased to see that the app caters for up to three children. As each child engages with the app, parents can check to see how they are performing and offer help, encouragement or rewards as they see fit.   Some useful background information on the app’s purposes and usage are provided within the app itself and a more comprehensive overview of the Rocket Math ethos is available on the developer’s website.

All of the Rocket Math apps provide a learning opportunity that is tightly focused on realising their goal of improving children’s arithmetic fluency. As such, if this is a goal that you also share, you will find them good value and useful apps.

# Students should be automatic with the facts. How fast is fast enough to be automatic?

Editor’s Note: “Direct retrieval” is when you automatically remember something without having to stop and think about it.

Some educational researchers consider facts automatic when a response comes in two or three seconds (Isaacs & Carroll, 1999; Rightsel & Thorton, 1985; Thorton & Smith, 1988). However, performance is not automatic; direct retrieval when it occurs at rates that purposely “allow enough time for students to use efficient strategies or rules for some facts (Isaacs & Carroll, 1999, p. 513).”

## Timed Math Fact Fluency Expectations by Grade Level

Most of the psychological studies have looked at automatic response time as measured in milliseconds and found that automatic (direct retrieval) response times are usually in the ranges of 400 to 900 milliseconds (less than one second) from presentation of a visual stimulus to a keyboard or oral response (Ashcraft, 1982; Ashcraft, Fierman & Bartolotta, 1984; Campbell, 1987a; Campbell, 1987b; Geary & Brown, 1991; Logan, 1988). Similarly, Hasselbring and colleagues felt students had automatized math facts when response times were “down to around 1 second” from the presentation of a stimulus until a response was made (Hasselbring et al. 1987).” If, however, students are shown the fact and asked to read it aloud, then a second has already passed. In which case you expect a timely response after reading the fact. “We consider mastery of a basic fact as the ability of students to respond immediately to the fact question. (Stein et al., 1997, p. 87).”

In most school situations, students take tests on one-minute timings. Expectations of automaticity vary somewhat. Translating a one-second-response time directly into writing answers for one minute would produce 60 answers per minute. However, Some children, especially in the primary grades, cannot write that quickly. “In establishing mastery rate levels for individuals, it is important to consider the learner’s characteristics (e.g., age, academic skill, motor ability). For most students, a rate of 40 to 60 correct digits per minute [25 to 35 problems per minute] with two or few errors is appropriate (Mercer & Miller, 1992, p.23).” This 35 problems per minute rate seem to be the lowest noted in the literature.

## The Correct Math Fact Rates

Other authors noted research that indicated that “students who can compute basic math facts at a rate of 30 to 40 problems correct per minute (or about 70 to 80 digits correct per minute) continue to accelerate their rates as tasks in the math curriculum become more complex…[however],…students whose correct rates were lower than 30 per minute showed progressively decelerating trends when more complex skills were introduced. The minimum correct rate for basic facts should be set at 30 to 40 problems per minute, since this rate has been shown to be an indicator of success with more complex tasks (Miller & Heward, 1992, p. 100).” Rates of 40 problems per minute seems more likely to continue to accelerate than the lower end at 30.

## What is the recommended time to finish problems?

Another recommendation was that “the criterion be set at a rate [in digits per minute] that is about 2/3 of the rate at which the student can write digits (Stein et al., 1997, p. 87).” For example, a student who writes 100 digits per minute expects to write 67 digits per minute. This translates to between 30 and 40 problems per minute. Howell and Nolet (2000) recommend an expectation of 40 correct facts per minute, with a modification for students who write at less than 100 digits per minute. The number of digits per minute is a percentage of 100, and you multiply that percentage  by 40 problems to give the expected number of problems per minute. For example, a child who writes 75 digits per minute would expect 75% of 40 or 30 facts per minute.

If measured individually, a response delay of about 1 second would be automatic. In writing, 40 is the minimum, up to about 60 per minute for students who can write that quickly. Teachers themselves range from 40 to 80 problems per minute. Sadly, many school districts have expectations as low as 50 problems in 3 minutes or 100 problems in five minutes. These translate to rates of 16 to 20 problems per minute. At this rate, students can count answers on their fingers. So, this “passes” children who have only developed procedural knowledge of how to figure out the facts rather than the direct recall of automaticity.

## Conclusion

With the right tools, any student can develop math fact fluency and have fun while doing it! Students use Rocket Math’s Subscription Worksheet Program to practice with partners, then take timed tests. Rocket Math also offers math facts practice online through the Rocket Math Online Game. Students can log in and play from any device, anywhere, any time of day! Start a free trial today.

Both the worksheet program and the online game help students master addition, subtraction, multiplication, and division math facts.

## Don’t I need to teach doubles and other combinations first?

There is a lot of advice out there that teachers need to introduce different tricks to remembering math facts to help students learn the facts. Things like doubles, or doubles plus ones, or special combinations that add to ten are recommended to be taught to students. Teachers are exhorted to use many different kinds of exercises to teach these different ways of remembering facts. Is that necessary to do before memorizing facts as we do in Rocket Math? The simple answer is, “No, that’s not necessary.”

How do we know? What’s the evidence? There are two basic sources of evidence, one from experience and another from logic.
Let’s look at the logical reasons these are not necessary. The goal of Rocket Math, and any good math fact memorization program, is to develop automaticity in answering math facts. Automaticity means the student can instantly answer the fact, without any intervening thought process. So even if students first learn those memory tricks they have to be abandoned in favor of simply recalling the fact from memory.

An intervening thought process would go like this, “Four plus five is like four plus four but one more. Four plus four is eight , so one more is nine. So four plus five is nine.” But the goal of Rocket Math is to simply come to the point where the student reads, “Four plus five is,” and the answer, nine, pops into mind without another thought. Logic tells us that if the learner ultimately has to abandon the strategy, the only reason for learning the strategy is if it is needed as a transition. In other words, if students have to learn the facts to the point where they don’t use the strategy, then the only reason to learn the strategy is if they need it to get to the point of memorizing the facts.
This brings us to the second piece of evidence, experience. I know from experience tha students don’t need these strategies to learn the facts.  When I started using my original hand-written version of Rocket Math with my students with learning disabilities–it worked without them knowing other strategies!  In the past fifteen years thousands of children have learned math facts to automaticity using Rocket Math without learning those different tricks. If it were necessary, then they wouldn’t be able to do it. The reason it is not necessary is that students only have to memorize two facts at a time and that’s just not difficult to do. Give them plenty of practice with those two (enough so that they come to be able to answers as fast as they can write) and they will know the facts without some other (intervening) strategy.
So you don’t have to teach all those different tricks to students to remember facts. Just use Rocket Math, and make sure they are practicing the right way with corrective feedback from their partner. Their results will speak for themselves.