The Facts about Facts!

Why bother?!

In this age of technology, do we still need to learn number facts? Absolutely! Thinking flexibly about numbers opens up thinking for more complex mathematical problems. Mental math is also a survival mechanism when you are out in the real-world! Think of how often you use it: How many km am I going over the speed limit?! Do I have enough money to pay for the groceries? How many points is Hillary Clinton up by?!

How do you teach mental math?

Traditionally learning math facts has always been focussed on drill, drill and more drill. In recent years, however; teachers are straying from this model and realizing that drill is not as effective as other methods for ensuring that deep understanding and number sense.

“Posing a story problem…followed by a brief discussion of the strategies that children used, can improve children’s accuracy and efficiency with basic facts.” Rathmell, Leutzinger, & Gabriele, 2000

In fact (no pun intended!), it has been found that these children actually master more facts than children in a drill program! In addition to story problems, number talks that expose children to multiple strategies goes much further than drill alone. A number talk is when you pose a question (ideally in a story problem) and engage the students in a dialogue about how they solved it.

Playing games has also been shown to increase students’ recall and accelerate their understanding of facts. This is only true, however; if the use of reasoning strategies is explicitly built into the games and reinforced through interactions with others. So, if you are a fan of worksheets, drills, timed-tests or Kumon – hopefully this post will change your mind!

Addition strategies

It may interest you to know that there is a huge difference between the way we present facts in North America, compared to China. In China they teach fact tables (for example, the 6 fact tables are all the facts with 6 as an addend: 6+1, 6+2, 6+3 etc.). In America, we teach fact families (for example all the ways to make the sum of 12: 1+11, 2+10, 3+9 etc.). The result? Using fact tables, there are 81 facts to learn (although if you know the commutative property that can be reduced to only 45!!!); using fact families, there are a whooping 153!! (W. Sun and J. Zhang, 2001) So I encourage you to rethink the way you present facts in the early years. Your child may thank you 153 minus 45 times!

Although students should be exposed to multiple strategies, it is important that they are allowed to invent and use their own strategy and not be pigeon-holed into a teacher-chosen one. That being said, there is usually one strategy that is more preferable to use for the given scenario. Discussions about efficiency should take up a lot of your time. You’ll find children are quick to realize that one strategy is better than another and your job is to make the opportunities for those discussions to happen.

The main mental math strategies are:

  • Counting all
  • Counting on
  • One more or one less
  • Two more or two less
  • Making 10
  • Doubles and near doubles

Does order matter? Kind of….the first few methods are counting skills so children should find those mental math skills easier to master. The next few are reasoning methods which require a lot more higher thinking. In order to master those, students must be comfortable counting on and back as well as familiar with composing and decomposing numbers. At school, we just started a unit with making 10’s, but only because they had just finished place value and it seemed like a natural progression. But even within that strategy, we can make it easier or more difficult for students that need it. To make it easier – start with the 9 fact table (easy to make 10 by counting one more). To make it harder – start with the 6 fact table (how many more to bridge 10?).

The important things to remember? Ensure repeat exposure with each strategy and have patience! “It can take between 2-4 lessons before most students really internalize the reasoning strategies discussed in class.” Steinberg 1985

Isn’t using manipulatives with mental math cheating?

I like to call it reinforcing! Child development naturally progresses from concrete to pictorial to abstract, so do that! Help build the mental picture in their minds by using concrete manipulatives. Here are some good ones to use for facts to 18:

  • Five and Ten frames
  • Rekenreks!
  • Abacus
  • Base 10 Blocks
  • Number lines
  • 100 chart
  • And one of the favourites! Fingers!  Read an interesting article HERE on the importance of fingers and mapping within the brain!

Here’s a video of me introducing addition facts to Rory using 5 frames. My first check is to see whether he knows what addition is; then I follow to see whether he has the ability to count on. If he doesn’t, then the only mental math strategy accessible to him at the moment will be counting all. I was super surprised and excited when Rory automatically made groups of 5 with his 5-frames and even more impressed when he made the group with the larger number (i.e. 4 instead of 3), especially since he has never seen this manipulative before. This just shows the power of a manipulative in learning addition strategies.

Keep in mind...

Kids need continual practice throughout the year. Look for ways to incorporate mental math into your day naturally. Even exceptional students benefit from conversations about the efficiency of each strategy. For example, when should we use bridging 10 instead of making doubles?

Can you expect your 4-year-old to master the facts? Not usually and not with full understanding. The ability to reason and achieve full mastery for addition and subtraction facts up to 18, usually occurs in Grade 2, but it is different for each child.

What can I do with Rory at the kindergarten level? I can expose him to problems of joining and separating and teach him the meaning of the words add (join) and subtract (separate). I cannot teach him reasoning strategies until he has the ability to count on and is developmentally ready, but I can see where he’s at. In Grade 1, I can use 5 frames and rekenreks to help him develop his facts up to 10 and help him achieve mastery of those before entering grade 2. And then in grade 2, expose him to different strategies so that he can think flexibly and easily, mentally.

Back to top!

Tenzi Frenzy!

We are away for the summer at a cottage, with no internet or TV, which I usually love. We’ve already read lots of books, frolicked in the waves, swam to the Big Rock,  sailed to Seagull Island, canoed…dumped the canoe and had lots of good old fashioned fun; but my heart still felt the pitter-patter of excitement when I saw the clouds roll in, because that meant we could drive to the nearest town and spend the morning at Chapters!  

Don’t you love rainy days at Chapters? (Borders would probably be the US equivalent).The boys love playing with Thomas the train in the kids section, and looking at all the books, while I finally get a chance to peruse the latest best-sellers in person, instead of on Amazon! We go to the library every week, but it’s just not the same as a road trip to Chapters. And when we went yesterday, I felt like I hit the jackpot with my new find: TENZI!

Best. Game. Ever!!! Kevin and Steve (the game’s designers), made known by a little piece of paper in the game box with their story on it, may not have thought of the mathematical implications when they came up with the idea for the game, but kudos to them for unwittingly designing a brilliant game suitable for 3-103 year olds!!

Here is the general gist of the game, and I quote: “Everyone gets 10 dice. Then everyone rolls until someone gets all their dice on the same number.” Simple, right? Why am I so excited by this new find? Because of its GINORMOUS educational value! It’s like this game was conceived specifically with the pre-kindergarten to grade 2 curriculum in mind,  yet it’s intended for everyone!

Here’s why I love it:

Subitizing!

Subitizing is the ability to recognize number patterns without counting. Rory quickly grasped what the dot patterns stood for and although he still counted the dots on each new turn, the repetition of looking for the same dot pattern reinforces his learning. I am confident that after a few more rounds, he will quickly and easily know the dot patterns for 1-6 without counting.

Counting on!

If you have 3 of the same number and get one more, now you have 4. Rory was learning and Practicing math skills without even knowing it! He already has developed one to one correspondence and cardinality, but now we’re extending his knowledge. What is 3 and 3 more, or 4 more, or 5 more?! Because each turn is different, he is continually practicing different amounts of counting on.

Decomposition and recomposition of 10 (a very important bench-mark number)!

Because the goal of the game is to get 10 dice all on the same number, you are constantly looking for two numbers that make up 10: those you already have with the same number on them and those you have yet to roll. Rory quickly saw when he needed one more to make 10, and then we looked to see that he already had 9. Or he had 5 of the same number and needed 5 more. And that leads to….

Addition!

Decomposition of 10 is the building block to addition and although we didn’t concentrate on it today (it was our first time after all!), eventually we will use this game to practice our 10 facts. We can easily adapt it to practice our 5 facts first, just play with 5 dice each instead and yell, Fivzi!

Fun!

This game is fun for the whole family!  Oliver got in on the action too but only to yell “Tenzi! “ and steal our dice to make a tower, but I’m sure he’ll see the math value soon!! It was me that finally drew the game to a close after almost an hour; Rory could have kept playing forever!

So Kevin and Steve (fortuitous mathematical master-minds that you are!), thank you for a fun and easy game that everyone can play. It looks like you two have a whole new market to exploit and hopefully I’ve inspired some new fans here!

If you want to know more, check out their website at www.ilovetenzi.com. Thank heavens for rainy days!!

Have other great math games that aren’t actually meant to be math games?

Post them in the comments section below!

Back to top!

 

Making Math Meaningful with Manipulatives!

If you’re not a teacher, you may not be familiar with the term manipulatives, but you can probably infer what they are. Manipulatives are models that help children think and reflect on new ideas in math. They include resources that allow children to explore, question, guess and check, but more importantly, to play with the problem. Counters, toys, linking cubes, abacuses are just a few examples.

Why use manipulatives?

We all know the old adage: we learn better by doing and math is no different! Manipulatives give students, of all ages, opportunities to have a hands-on approach and develop deeper understanding of concepts. Research has shown benefits to using manipulatives all through life! That means, don’t be in a rush to move your child into more abstract ways of solving problems. There is a natural progression to manipulatives and you need to assess your child’s readiness before pushing them to a more abstract level. When choosing materials, they should be sequenced from concrete to abstract and from 3-D to 2-D. See the chart below for more information.

Transitioning from concrete to abstract manipulatives (Charlesworth, 2000)

1) Start with real objects. Sensorimotor stage.
2) Move to real objects supplemented by pictures. Pre-operational stage
3) Once the first two are mastered, you can use cutouts of real objects. This is the transition from 3-D to 2-D, but the objects can still be manipulated. Pre-operational stage.
4) Now move to pictures. Transitional stage
5) Finally (and much later!) use paper and pencil. Concrete operations stage

So where do virtual manipulatives fit on this spectrum? Good question! I’m not sure! My guess is that they act like real objects because you can move them, but because they are 2-D, they might be more on par with the cut-outs level, in terms of concreteness (see step 3 above). Let’s see what Rory thinks. I’m going to get Rory to do a task with real objects and then do the same task with on-line manipulatives. Then we’ll see what he has to say! This task is an introduction to addition but it would also be great to use for lessons on one:one correspondence, decomposing numbers, counting on and  cardinality.

Well it looks like Rory prefers virtual manipulatives. It may have been the novelty of it or the fact that the computer images acted more life-like than the real objects! He claims that the boat was more real compared to my egg carton version and he liked that the bears kept looking at him (in case you couldn’t tell)! The important thing is that children are given the freedom to choose their own manipulative so that they aren’t restricted to one method. That way, they can discover their own way to reach a solution that makes sense for them. If he likes the on-line tool, on-line tool it is! But I’ll make sure he has the real objects on stand-by in case he’d like to use them as well.

Looking for manipulatives? Look no farther!

Click here for a list of manipulatives that teachers often use with this age group!

Are you a parent? The great thing is that anything can be a manipulative! You don’t need to run to a teacher supply store in order to help your child.

Click here for a list of great things to use at home!

Back to Top