Fluency in Math

June 7, 2012 at 4:36 am Leave a comment

I’m sure most of my readers are familiar with the term fluency in regards to reading, and recently I’ve had several conversations with individuals and groups about fluency in math.  What is fluency in math? How does one obtain fluency with numbers and math facts? How do I know if students are fluent?  These are all important questions that must be discussed, debated, and defined as we educators embark on the Common Core State Standards. There are several standards at various grade levels which state that students need to develop fluency with addition, subtraction, multiplication, division, fluency within fractions, etc. In my work with students, I see the gaps that students have over time with conceptual understanding, therefore almost forcing them into memorizing basic facts. This was the way I learned them, so why doesn’t it work anymore? My passion for creating strong mathematicians stems from the fact that I want to get it right this time… I don’t want students to feel pressure to memorize something without understanding of WHY it works.  All research states that math fact fluency leads to success in mathematics!  We know that in order for students to perform in higher levels of math, and more critical thinking problems, fluency is required.  This should not be the debate!  An essential question for educators, and parents to ask is How do we develop fluency of math facts in students?

In my work as a math coach, I encourage teachers to help students build conceptual understanding of what it means to add, subtract, multiply, divide in order to help students build fluency.  When students have many and multiple opportunities to manipulate numbers, look at relationships in numbers, and look for patterns and make use of those structures, they begin to understand why basic facts are important.  Once that foundation is placed, practice is key to developing fluency.  Students need time to practice working with numbers, and they need contexts that are relevant to the numbers. Teachers who have done professional development with me know that context plays a huge role in student understanding.  (I’ll recommend good reads about this later)

Traditionally in education we’ve just used naked numbers, rote memorization, and the almighty flashcards (whether on the computer or not) to develop fluency. Here is the problem with that approach… repetition without understanding is not enough, and understanding without repetition isn’t enough either. Once a student understands the concept, time is necessary to practice the concept to develop fluency.

Time is probably the biggest challenge for teachers, and students.  I believe that in every teachers’ heart, they want to give students the time to develop fluency, however the pressure to “get it done” is always on.  Think about this, if I present a concept to students in context, spiral my curriculum so that I’m constantly planning for and assessing (formative) where my students are, and providing opportunities for students to practice a little each day, then fluency will come. My point is this, we have to create a balance for our students.  We can’t swing the pendulum too far to the right, nor too far to the left, it’s all about balance.

When I first began as a school math coach, teachers would ask me, “How many days a week do I spend on problem solving and how many days a week do I spend on computation problems?” I can’t tell you how many days to spend on either one of these things, you know your students best, and by knowing them you should plan math lessons that incorporate both problem solving and computational practice. Neither is isolated from the other if we’re student centered. What I can tell you is that if all you do is follow the textbook, or handout worksheets, they might get it for that one test, but it won’t stick for life, and vital mathematical connections won’t be made.

There are many math fluency “programs” available.  Many are really good.  I specifically used FASSTMATH when I was at an individual school, and we did notice an increase in our scores, but more importantly, we noticed an increase in students’ confidence with their math fluency.  WHY? HOW? For starters, we didn’t introduce students to the program until 3rd grade.  This allowed our K-2 teachers to focus on laying the foundation for the facts, allowing students time, and giving them opportunities to manipulate numbers and become comfortable with numbers, and how they work.

I’d love to hear how you help teachers and parents understand how fluency is developed in math.


Entry filed under: Reflections.

Frogs on a Log Common Core Training

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Kristen Hahn

June 2012
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