Posts Tagged ‘why students are not masterning basic math facts’

Why So Many Elementary Students Aren’t Mastering Basic Math Facts — Part I (of 2)

July 14, 2011

Remedial math in college

A friend of mine teaches remedial math at the Community College level.  We were discussing the problem of a number of  students who never seem to have their addition facts mastered (much less their multiplication facts).  He wrote:

“I remember as a young math teacher wondering how many hours of flash card drill it takes in the elementary grades to become fluent in the addition and multiplication facts. I could imagine ten minutes a day of actual flash card drill, five days a week, for 45 weeks in one grade, a total of 50 hours if I multiplied correctly, might be a reasonable guess.  Surely it has been studied.  Well, if it has been studied I have never seen any evidence of it in the last fifty years.  I thought of that as probably pretty basic knowledge about the teaching of arithmetic.”

I’d estimate that at least 30 hours of drill, spread over a period of time would be required for an average child to learn addition facts, and an equal amount of time later on to learn multiplication facts.  But there is NO classroom time provided for this in the math curriculum.

The problem here, speaking as a third-grade teacher of 8-and-9-year-old students for a decade, is that the elementary math curriculum (in America) is not structured to provide ANY time for drill such as he describes.  Even when I was a child in the early 1960’s, we did not have drill of that type in elementary school.  My mother worked on flash cards with me 10-15 minutes every day before I was allowed to play.  I HATED every moment of it, but saw the value of it when I got into the working world in my 20’s and was using multiplication every day, knowing my multiplication tables by heart thanks to her efforts.

I’ve been discussing math teaching with other math teachers for several years now, and I find there are several trends I highly disagree with.

Houghton Mifflin Grade 3 Math Homework prior to 2007

Trend 1:  The amount of math homework has been cut in half from 24-30 problems nightly, to 12-15.  I can only guess that this has come about from parents complaining about too much homework over the years.  While I am in favor of not giving more homework than necessary, unfortunately, the current lighter homework often does not give sufficient practice in a certain type of problem for the students to be able to understand or master that type of problem.  One or two examples of a certain type of problem are just not sufficient.

Houghton Mifflin NEW Amount of Grade 3 math homework, starting in 2007 (taken from end of a Grade 2 workbook)

Trend 2:  Drill practice is considered “old-fashioned.”  Never mind that the teacher can make drill practice into a fun lesson, just like any other type of lesson can be made fun by a a dedicated teacher.  Without any drill, and without parents practicing or drilling children at home (such as the type of flash card practice my mother did with me as a child), many children are just NEVER mastering even the basic addition facts, let alone multiplication facts.

I no longer teach Grade 3; I am now a private tutor.  Unfortunately, I am now running across a number of 14-year-olds who are using calculators to add 5 + 3, or 7 + 6, or 9 + 2.  What’s even worse, THEIR TEACHERS LET THEM!!!!  I personally think calculators should just be thrown out until about Grade 11, or whenever math involving higher functions on calculators is started.  Prior to that time, they shouldn’t be allowed in school at all.

When I taught Grade 3, I made students show all of their work on their homework, including every carry number, and every cross-out for borrowing; I didn’t allow them to say, “I did it in my head.”  (See photo above of example homework prior to 2007.)   One reason for making students show all of their work (I had several reasons)  is that I knew perfectly well many of them had calculators at home.  However, even if they did their homework with calculators, they would have to redo it to mark all the carry numbers and borrowing cross-outs.  This makes it better to just do it by hand in the first place.  I then spent 30 minutes of my teaching time DAILY, going over these homework problems.  It’s so satisfying to a teacher to hear, “Oh!  Now I see my mistake!”  It’s a big mistake for a teacher just to mark answers right or wrong, as students learn nothing from that.

Trend 3  (mostly at the high school level, I haven’t yet seen it appearing in middle schools, although I could be mistaken):  Don’t instruct and explain, and then follow up with practice to master the skills.  Instead, put students into groups, and let them see if they can “figure out themselves” how to do problems.  Don’t give much feedback, but of course, students will have the same test as if you taught them the traditional way.  (So the parents who can afford it get math tutors to do at home the job that the teacher should be doing;  the parents who cannot afford tutors or understand the math themselves have children who completely fail math).

High school math class, with students working in groups.

Trend 4 (has been around for at least 25 years):  It doesn’t matter if children don’t master a unit.  Just move through all the units, and the same units will be covered next year in a little more detail.  If they still don’t get it, the same thing will happen the following year, and hopefully they will get it then.  This idea has a name, which is called something like “spiraling.”

Even though I’ve never seen it, in the past couple of years I’ve become aware that “Singapore math” requires mastery of each math subject to a certain degree before moving on to the next math subject.

I think students would be far better served by having HALF the number of math topics (eliminating topics in Grade 2 such as Data, Graphing and Probablility; Congruent Shapes and Symmetry; etc.) and making sure they have mastered basic addition facts (by heart), addition  and subtraction of  two-digit numbers, and multiplication tables up to 5 (by heart) before moving into Grade 3.  If parents don’t have time to drill children at home on these facts, then some time for it should be allowed in the school curriculum.

–Lynne Diligent

Other Math Posts by Lynne Diligent:

Why So Many Elementary Students Aren’t Mastering Basic Math Facts — Part 2 (of 2)