Thursday, September 6, 2012

Fun with fluency facts - Math Attack

The debate about math facts runs rampant in many districts. We know (or should know) that fluency with addition, subtraction, and multiplication facts is necessary to open cognitive space in the brain for bigger math thinking. It's the same reason we want kids to be fluent in reading; when they can read the words smoothly, quickly and with expression, the brain spends less thinking power decoding and uses that space for comprehension.

Math? Same thing. When kids can easily and automatically throw out math facts, it shows that their brain is spending less energy with computations for those smaller numbers 1-10. Have you seen the videos for Singapore math? Those kids fly with their facts.

The most amazing thing I have seen lately was a video of 4th graders doing mental math. They couldn't write it, and were asked to explain their answer. The problem was 16 x 35. Within seconds hands were flying up with the answer. The teachers I was watching the video with were still trying to figure it out, most of us doing invisible math in the air with our finger, carrying over and adding. The kids gave answers like this:

"I know that 10 x 30 is 300, and 10 x 5 is 50, that's 350. 6 x 30 is 180; 300 plus 100 is 400, 50 and 80 is 130, so now I have 530. 6 x 5 is 30, so the answer is 560."

"10 x 35 is 350. 6 x 3 is 180, and 6 x 5 is 30, so that's 210. 350 + 210 is 560."

and my favorite:

"If I halve and double, I have 8 x 70. 8 x 7 is 56, so 8 x 70 is 560."

Every one of these answers relied on knowing the basic facts. The ability to quickly add or multiply the basic facts gave these kids an edge. They quickly broke down the numbers, and then built them back up.

Ok, so, we know that our kids need fact fluency. I am no fan of the timed test. My oldest daughter failed, failed and failed again at timed tests. She is completely capable of math facts, but her weekly timed tests didn't show it. She never got to progress onto other fact families because she was stuck redoing the same set  of facts over and  over. Her own anxiety held her back. Once the teacher let go of having her be timed, she flew through the sets.

I am, however, a big fan of games. A little daily practice and repetition with facts can anchor them firmly in a child's brain. A few years ago I stumbled on Math Pickle. I went back to revisit it last night, looking for answers to the math fact dilemma. There is was, the answer to my dreams. Each grade level has activities aimed at mathematical thinking. Actually, a lot of them are games. Activities, games, it's all good.

I am going to introduce a grade 2 game today. It's an addition game, involving alien lego fighter ships. You have to get the right combination of addition facts to destroy the enemy ship. Everything you need to teach is there: a video explaining the game and the thinking that goes on in the background, a ppt, worksheets, the whole she-bang. Check it out here.

This is my thinking: if my kids come in every morning and play this game for 10 - 15 minutes a week, trying to get the fastest time with each ship, then I am providing between 50 and 75 minutes of addition fact practice weekly.

Seriously. How cool is that?


  1. Thanks for introducing me to Math Pickle! I loved it and can't wait to see how I can include it in my weekly routine:)

  2. I used it today, and the kids LOVED it. Let me know how you use it!


  3. I agree. Kids need to know their math facts so they can spend their brain power on the how and why in math, not the computational part of math. I'm off to check out Earth Attack. Greg Tang is amazing for fact fluency too. I went to a workshop with him once and he blew my mind. I'm good at math and facts and I was struggling to keep up. It was fun though. I loved the challenge.

    The Teaching Thief