I can feel it now. Sweaty palms, a racing heart, an anxious stomach. Is it the first time taking an airplane ride? Getting some life-changing news? Public speaking? No … just math class. We’ve all been there. A sheet full of math problems laid on your desk, the teacher sets a timer, and pencils aren’t allowed to touch the paper yet. The teacher says “go!” and here comes the sweaty palms, the racing heart, and the anxious stomach. And then you hear “time’s up, pencils down!” Were you one of the students that completed the entire sheet? Because if not, you failed, right? WRONG! As a teacher, I know that isn’t true, but as a student, I definitely felt like a failure. I would hate to think the purpose of this anxiety-inducing sheet given out by my teacher was to make me feel like a failure. Of course it wasn’t, it was simply to test my fact fluency!
Now, let’s switch perspectives for a minute. I never wanted to be the teacher that caused anxiety for my students over a simple worksheet. I knew how I felt in those moments and I never wanted my students to feel that way. But gosh darn it, those little math facts can be so hard for students to get the hang of. So, what’s the solution? Give all of my students major anxiety or continue to pull all of my hair out? Neither sounded like a great idea, so I came up with several different ways to approach teaching fact fluency.
1. Teach Conceptually First
Using models, manipulatives, and good, rich vocabulary really bring meaning to what students are learning. Being able to manipulate things themselves helps their learning “stick.” Without the conceptual understanding of operations, it’s like riding a bike with no training wheels first. After all, students can’t add if they have never had the opportunity to actually combine things together to understand the concept.
2. Teach Fact Fluency Strategies
Ok, now we’ve mastered the conceptual piece and what the operation means so now what? Now, it’s time to explicitly teach strategies. Keep tying in models and manipulatives. Try things like:
- Counting on
- Doubles +/- 1
- Adding tens
- Counting back
- Subtracting tens
3. Authentic Practice
Just like with any skill, students need practice to master it. They need a lot of ongoing authentic practice. Repetition is key with fact fluency. They need to see, hear, practice, and work with these facts very often to gain automaticity and speed.
- Adding activities into a center or station rotation
- Games, games, games!
- Computer programs that work on fluency
- Partner work
4. Incorporate into Other Parts of Your Day
This one ties into number 3 but isn’t quite as “authentic.” This is an “ok, we have a morsel of time between lunch and related arts, so let’s work on math facts.” I know, I know. In this day and age, a morsel of “free” time in the teacher world is a rare occasion but hey, sometimes it’s there. This could be as simple as students are lined up at the door and they have to answer a math fact given by you before they can exit the classroom, or maybe pulling out a math folder and everyone works on a strategy or fact for two minutes before lunch. Tie them in when you can and you’ll see results!
5. Morning Math Bins
Morning Math Bins are a favorite of mine. Instead of traditional morning work where students come in and work on a worksheet quietly at their desk, try putting out some interactive bins that work on math facts. Students come into the classroom in the morning, put away their things, and grab a math bin driven toward math facts. They could work with partners or individually, whatever suits your needs.
6. Offer Incentives
A little reward can go a long way. If students are aware that they are working to earn something, chances are it might give them a little more motivation. Try something as simple as a coloring sheet. Sounds silly but hear me out. The coloring sheet can have the reward on it. For example, a coloring sheet of an ice cream sundae with different facts written on different parts of the sundae. When they master a fact, they color in that part of the sundae. When they have colored in all of the facts, they earn an entire ice cream sundae as a treat!
7. Send a Parent Letter Home
Send a letter home to parents explaining the importance of being fluent in math facts and ask for support/practice at home. You can even mention the incentive that you’ve offered to students (and perhaps even ask for parent donations for said incentive, just a thought!😉 ) Give parents some ideas of what they could do to help teach fact fluency and help their child learn them. Bonus points for parent support: choose activities that take a short amount of time, around 10-15 minutes at night, and are simple to follow. Parents are busy with dinner, sporting events, work, etc. and a shorter amount of time is attractive to them, so they are more likely to have their child engage in the activities. As a teacher, we all know that any support at home helps in the classroom.
8. Use Music or Chants
🎵THE FIFTY NIFTY UNITED STATES….🎵 Ok, how many of you learned this song in school to remember your states and can still recite it? Um, me! And it’s been probably a solid 20+ years since I’ve learned it. Music is a POWERFUL classroom tool. When students memorize songs or chant lyrics, they are usually able to recall what they’ve learned even in stressful situations, like testing. For the primary grades, try someone like Jack Hartman. For 3-5, try rolling numbers songs for multiplication facts.
9. Track Student Progress
This can be something as simple as the ice cream sundae coloring sheet mentioned in #6 or a folder with graphs and goal setting. Any way you choose to do it, it has more of an impact if you hand the tracking over to the student. Students love to take responsibility to track their own progress and it’s a good visual motivator for them to keep “beating” their own score.
*refer to the resource linked under #3 for fact tracking graphs for students
10. Timed Tests
Ok, I feel like this one needs to be discussed. Timed tests get a bad rep. It really isn’t the test themselves that’s a problem. It’s the way they are used. Timed tests have been known to spike students’ anxiety, but they can be used in a way that make students comfortable. If you choose to use timed tests, try telling students they have one minute to complete a certain number. This can be a differentiated number for each student. Put post it notes with a number on each student’s desk prior to the test. Maybe your goal for one student is 30 problems, while another may only be able to complete 10. This lowers the expectation that the full sheet has to be completed and if students meet their goal, they all feel successful. Another option to lower anxiety is when the timed portion is completed, students can circle the last problem that they answered and then can have the opportunity to finish the test untimed.
Ok, time’s up! Pencils down! Wipe the sweat off of your palms and let your heart rate come down because there’s no reason to stress over timed tests as a student or as a teacher. 😊
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