Photo by jetheriot.
One of the most common math questions on homeschooling discussion forums is, “How can I help my child master the math facts?” Unfortunately, when it comes to drilling facts, many children think math is spelled “B-O-R-I-N-G.” Worksheets are tedious, flash cards make them groan, and even the latest computer game is a yawner.
Mastering the Math Facts
School supply stores and catalogs feature a wide variety of educational products designed to make the process easier, from rods and blocks to math fact Bingo. I’d hate to have to account for all the money I have spent on products designed to help my children learn the math facts. Maybe a multiplication coloring book with silly stories will help this year, or perhaps we should try an audio tape of skip-counting songs, or…
Children who understand arithmetic well may yet struggle to master the math facts, and my college calculus student with a straight-A average still makes occasional, maddening math fact errors on her tests. Even mathematicians sometimes have difficulty with arithmetic. Check out this frequently-quoted anecdote about Ernst Eduard Kummer.
Learning to understand math is a conceptual task, but learning the math facts is more like rote memory work. Yet rote memory is not enough. A student can recite the times tables perfectly and still be reduced to counting on her fingers in the middle of a long division problem.
An Analogy: “Math Is to Typing As…”
Training one’s mind to recall math facts when needed is a lot like learning to type. It comes in stages:
- Hunt and peck
In typing, we understand that we have to push down the proper key to get the letter we want, but it may take us a few minutes to find that key. In math, this is the manipulative or counting-on-fingers stage.
- Slow but steady
Now we have learned that each finger controls certain keys, but we have to think about whether “c” is up or down from the home row. In math, the student understands the concepts behind each math fact, but he still has to count by fives to calculate 5×7.
- Automatic response
The professional typist looks at a word on the paper she is copying, and her fingers automatically hit the proper sequence of keys. Typing has become a reflex. A math student who has reached this stage can see 2×5 on a worksheet and instantly think “10.”
Of course, we do not progress evenly from one stage to the next. As a typist, I work primarily in stage 2, but simple words (the or and) come automatically, while I still hunt and peck the numbers and unusual forms of punctuation.
For our students, progress in learning the math facts will come the same, slow way. They may know instantly that 3×5 is the same as 15, while they still count on their fingers to solve 8×6.
What Is It Worth to You?
Also, notice that not all typists reach the automatic stage — and that is okay. I have a friend who can type over 100 words per minute, almost as fast as she can think. I can type around 30wpm, which is about as fast as I can think, too. My daughter is still at the hunt-and-peck stage, but she gets by.
Does my daughter need to work at typing faster? Yes, and she plays around with Mavis Beacon every once in awhile, but it is not super-high on her priority list. It is not nearly as important to her as writing her novels. Fortunately, the work on her novels will help gradually to increase her speed.
Would I like to type faster? Sure I would, but not enough to work at it. I will never be a medical transcriptionist, but I can type well enough for e-mail.
In the same way, not every student will reach the automatic stage with all the math facts. Most of us still struggle with remembering a few of them as adults, particularly the times-7 or times-8 facts. As long as we know how to calculate the ones we cannot recall, we will survive.
The Game that Is Worth 1,000 Worksheets
Finally, as with typing, there is only one way to reach the automatic stage: practice, practice, practice. The student must calculate the math facts over and over, so many times that the correct response becomes a reflex.
Thankfully, with the right math drill game, practicing the facts can be fun.
This is the first post in my Times Table Series. To be continued…