The question is whether our students should memorize basic math facts or if we should spend time working on computational math. Do we teach our students songs about number families and rhymes so that they can remember their math facts? Drill them about basic facts with flash cards? Or do we teach our students ways to quickly compute facts in their heads? Is there a right or wrong approach or perhaps something in the middle? There are strong opinions on both sides, but neither is wrong, and I believe you can find a happy middle ground between math fact fluency and computational fluency.
What are math facts?
Math facts are basic facts in all four math operations: addition, subtraction, multiplication, and division. Math fluency is the ability to quickly recall these basic facts that have been memorized by students instead of having to figure out the equations and answers every time. When these facts are in the students’ brains, it provides a building block on which to continue constructing mathematical knowledge throughout the rest of school and into adult life.
What is the difference between math fact fluency and computational fluency?
Instead of counting on fingers, drawing pictures, or counting out plastic bears, math fact fluency focuses on remembering basic facts. With repeated practice, facts are stored in long-term memory, a place from where they can be recalled at any time.
Computational fluency in math is the ability to figure out the answer to a mathematical computation quickly. This can be done with memorized basic math facts or with the ability to know how to find the answer quickly. For instance, being able to find the answer to an addition or subtraction problem that requires regrouping without pencils, paper, or calculators would be a sign of computational fluency in math.
Math Fact Fluency Foundation
Perhaps you were taught songs or rhymes to remember your addition, subtraction, multiplication, and division math facts. I was. The one that I remember best is multiples of 8, my favorite being “8 times 8 is 64, shut the door and say no more!” I remember some rhymes better than others, and sometimes I still have to think about the facts I learned so long ago, but suffice it to say, I do not forget that 8×8=64.
The trouble with the old school memorization is simply that, we were memorizing math facts. I remember the rhymes, songs, and poems much better than I remember if any of my teachers showed me examples of the math facts and the patterns they create. Hopefully none of my teachers read this and accuse me of daydreaming that day, but I don’t remember being shown anything like a physical example of the math facts. As a teacher, I have always tried to show my students an array, counting bears, some kind of a graph, or number line to help illustrate the basic math facts.
Math fact fluency is important, but with that said, simply memorizing the facts is not enough. Our students need to see, experience, and understand the math facts instead of just learning silly rhymes and songs. Silly rhymes and songs help, don’t get me wrong, but we need something more for our students to learn basic facts instead of simply memorizing them.
A Modern Plan for Teaching Math Facts Fluency
Instead of simply having students memorize basic math like we did when we were kids, teach your students how to find the patterns and to understand them.
- Hands-on experience understanding addition and subtraction in basic math facts. Our students who are learning basic math need to touch and see the math facts to understand in addition to learning the rhymes. They all fit together to develop long-term memory fluency.
- Begin to memorize facts. Once students have a good understanding of basic math, it is time to begin memorizing those math facts for quick recall.
- Apply memorized math facts to new math challenges. When students work on memorizing facts, they can begin to quickly recall those facts on more challenging math assignments and build as they grow.
So, should you be teaching math facts?
Short answer: Yes. By learning basic math facts, your students develop math fact fluency where they are able to recall basic facts through long-term memory. The biggest difference in teaching math facts nowadays is that you need examples, hands-on experience, memorization, and the ability to apply the math knowledge to new math challenges. Our students need to understand the basic facts they are learning and memorizing instead of simply memorizing a set of seemingly random information. Set your students up for success with math fact fluency!
Here is a great intervention to help with basic facts.
Here are some digital games you can use in your classroom to help with fact fluency…