Tuesday, November 4, 2014

Thoughts about Math Fluency and Homework

Last night, our Response to Intervention coaches planned a Family Math Night to kick off Fact Busters Month at Hale Kula.  Teachers have expressed concern that students in the upper elementary grades are still counting on fingers and don't have their facts memorized. But is math fluency about memorizing facts or is it about understanding math concepts and using strategies to get to the answers quickly? A blog by National Council of Teachers of Mathematics President Linda M. Gojak titled "Fluency: Simply Fast and Accurate? I Think Not!" states that students need to build  understanding and flexible thinking if they are to become fluent in mathematics.

I enjoyed observing students during the different activities at Family Math Night. There were games for them to practice math fluency, primarily addition facts for students up to second grade and multiplication facts for the older students. Parents encouraged their children to figure out the answers on their own, and some students were quick with their responses. Others struggled, however, and it is those students who need to build understanding and flexible thinking so they can be more fluent in mathematics.

We understand the relationship between fluency in reading and comprehension.  We know that if a student has difficulty with decoding and struggles with sight words, reading fluency is negatively affected.  The meaning of the sentence or paragraph is often lost when so much effort is spent on figuring out the words.

Likewise, students who have poor fluency in math facts will most likely struggle with problem-solving or other math application skills. The Common Core Standards for Mathematical Practice  require students to be able to communicate their understanding and to use effective strategies to solve problems. Math is not just rows of problems with no relevance to real-life. Math should be understood and discussed, much like we discuss literature.

Our RTI coaches, working with students who struggle with math, planned a series of fun "Fact Busters" activities to encourage practicing and becoming more proficient with math facts and strategies. Students are encouraged to practice at home; they are monitoring their own progress. All students took a pre-assessment based on expected grade level targets and at the end of one month, they will take a post-assessment. Our hope is that 100% of our students will show significant gains.

Recently, there has been much discussion - even amongst our Hale Kula teachers - about homework. Some schools have even banned homework. We had a discussion about homework at our school a few years ago, and we never came to an agreement, so no policy was implemented. Personally, I believe that homework should not be stressful for the family. I cringe when I hear that students are taking two hours or more to complete their homework and that parents may not know how to help their child with more rigorous expectations of the Common Core. Homework should be a review of lessons, and if the student cannot complete the assignment independently or explain the instructions to parents, that is an indication that the homework is not appropriate.

Homework should not be drudgery, and it should be a review for students to build their skills. What kinds of "homework" can parents do to help their child with math fluency? Here are a few suggestions: In the car or just before bedtime, play math facts games. Mix up addition and subtraction for younger students and multiplication and division problems for older students. Find apps where children can practice math facts while playing a game such as shooting at UFOs or accumulating points towards a goal. Play games with cards or dice that help students with math facts. Have your child make their own flash cards of math facts they know. Have them review and add more to their pile as they master their facts so they can feel a sense of accomplishment. Ask children how many ways they can get to a specific number. For example, if the number is 5, possible ways would be 4+1 or 10-5 or  10-3-2 or 1/2 or 10. The possibilities are endless! When riding in the car, parents can give their child word problems and have them explain how they got their answer. Or turn it around and have the child think of a word problem using specific numbers and share their answer and how they solved it. There are so many opportunities and possibilities because math is all around us!

I am interested in seeing the results of our "Fact Busters" program and whether continued practice with math fluency will result in higher proficiency scores on our mid-year screening scores for math. One month is not much time to show improvement, but regardless of the results, we will continue to encourage our teachers, students, and parents to schedule time to practice math facts in ways that are fun for everyone.
Students and parents practiced math facts using iPad apps at Family Math Night.
Students played a "Math Facts Memory" game against a parent.   
@NCTM #halekula

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