How to Teach Math Fact Fluency

Why is math fact fluency important? Some people argue that it's not...with technology these days, why do students need to know their math facts from memory? Isn't that too old school??

According to The National Council of Teachers of Mathematics, students need knowledge of math facts and computational fluency in order to become more proficient problem solvers and critical thinkers. How do students learn their facts?

Research shows that students move through three predictable stages from kindergarten to grade 5 as they learn their math facts for all operations. Let's look at these stages and how you can teach them.

Stage 1 - Conceptual Understanding

Stage 1 refers to conceptual understanding, which is when students need to build procedural knowledge of the operations. That means, they need to figure it out with manipulatives, or even act it out to see the concrete action that the operation represents. Strong number sense and counting skills and are a pre-cursor to success! (I've linked a helpful blog post from Kindergarten Is Crazy including lots of great ideas for building number sense!)

Kindergarten teachers focus on Stage 1, and rightfully so, however, students still need lots of opportunities to build their conceptual understandings in every grade level. For much of the first semester, I use my math mats to reinforce procedural understanding of addition and subtraction.

Here we were working on subtraction with the bug counters from Lakeshore Learning and my picnic Math Story Mats. My kids just love the mats because there are so many different scenes- each time I change out the manipulatives, it's like a brand new activity! I just slip the mats into plastic sleeves (last-minute laminating) so my students can write their equations directly on the mat. (Sorry these pics are blurry- my friends were busy using the manips!)

Students need multiple opportunities to practice addition and subtraction procedures before they can be expected to truly understand equations and compute them with fluency. If you'd like to check out my Math Story Mats, just click on the picture to go to my TpT shop! It includes 12 different story mats, counters and recording sheets.

I also have a FREEBIE from this pack! Try it out with your kiddos :)

Stage 2 - Memory Strategies

Stage 2 is when students begin to learn ways to remember how to solve equations accurately. This is where our role is huge- we can and do help our students learn their math facts by teaching them explicit strategies like:
  • counting on/back
  • doubles
  • doubles plus one
  • complements of 10
  • fact families
Teaching students these kinds of strategies works better than rote memorization because they focus on the relationships between numbers, leading to brain-friendly connections that foster retention- ureka! For example, if I know 4+4=8, then one more (4+5) must equal 9.

Many of us already explicitly teach these strategies during math workshop through mini-lessons, math chats and small group work. To help my students practice these strategies, I created some Math Fact Printables. I introduce them in small groups where we discuss which strategies could be used to solve the equations. (Sorry, I didn't get any photos of student work, but I made a sample to show you what we do...)

So, after I have introduced a couple of strategies and we have had plenty of time to practice them with manipulatives, we slowly go through one of these sheets together in a small group (or one-on-one if a student is really struggling) and mark it according to the strategies that would help us. In the picture above, I tried to show how we circle "+ 0" (or - 0) facts like we are putting a big zero around it (because there is zero/no change), and how I encourage kids to circle the greater number and then count on by making a dot or mark for each count while also counting on aloud. I prompt my students to mark their paper as a way to "train their brain" in preparation for Stage 3. The most important part of Stage 2 is ensuring accuracy. It's kind of like coaching a sport; your prompting your students each step of the way as they make attempt after attempt, so that they execute with accuracy and precision- speed comes later!

I have just added my Addition & Subtraction Fact Printables to my shop! I have organized them into different levels to allow for pacing during the school year and differentiation for students. Click on the picture to them out!

Stage 3 - Developing Automaticity

Now students can apply their knowledge of memory strategies through more practice. The goal now is for students to easily recall the answers to facts immediately. This takes time and students will advance in this area at their own rates, but they still need consistent practice.

To develop math fact automaticity, I have my students continue to complete the fact practice printables with more frequency and with more independence, as well as employ various games during math stations. This year I also started to using Super Speed Math from Whole Brain Teaching and my kids absolutely loved it! I definitely recommend it because they work with a partner, which makes it more fun, and they measure their progress, which is really motivating! My students made great strides in learning their facts, which also improved their ability to solve word problems, and even double digit addition and subtraction. I saw their confidence grow and that was so great!

How do you teach fact fluency?? I'd love to hear!
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