Monday, March 9, 2009

Math Fact Drill

Over the last few decades I've noticed a very worrying trend amongst math educators that downplays the importance of knowing math facts well enough that you don't have to think when asked one. I've seen arguments that suggest that calculators take the place of knowing math facts.

For a while, when I lived in South Africa, I tutored underprivileged high school junior and seniors in math. These were all strong students who wanted to go onto do something that required math in university. They were hamstrung by the poor math teaching they received in their schools.

I generally tutored algebra and trig and discovered pretty quickly that they were also hamstrung by the fact that they couldn't easily find factors and common denominators.

My first action became going back to basics. I become a tyrant about math fact drills. I expected all my students to be able to give me the answers to the 1-12 times tables (and the divisions), squares of 1-20 and square roots of a long list of numbers within seconds of my asking them. I wanted these things to be automatic. I didn't want anyone having to think what 17+22 was, I wanted them to immediately know it was 39.

Without a single exception, all my students started excelling at their higher level math once they had their math facts down pat and we'd done some basic tutoring on methodology.

I had almost forgotten about all this until I started homeschooling my own kids. I have twins who love math and who want to scream ahead in the syllabus. I have no doubt in my mind at all that they could cope with the concepts of beginning algebra right now. The problem is that they'd be frustrated by their slowness in math facts.

I've spent the last year looking for tools to drill math facts.

We've done pages upon pages of written problems. There are a host of different free worksheet webpages, but the one I used most often was

Whenever I added a timer to them, Shira fell apart. I struggled to keep Ben focused. Shira would complete her worksheets in record time, as long as there was no timer, Ben could do it, but became bored.

We tried games at, Timez Attack, the river crossing game at AHA Math, flash cards and mom asking questions while we drive.

Flash cards and mom asking worked well but it took up too much of my time. I tried having each child quiz the other but it ended up in too many tears.

We discovered that the computer games helped the children learn new math facts but didn't do much for speed. Both my kids hated Timez Attack. I was surprised at that because I had only read great reviews. I realized that since we're not a video gaming family, my kids were becoming too frustrated learning how to play the game. They just wanted to focus on the facts and the extraneous activities were driving them crazy.

Before I forget, we also had a subscription to Big Math Time. This worked really well for addition and subtraction of small numbers but it fell apart for us on multiplication, division and addition and subtraction of large numbers because of the strange way they had the kids show the carrying.

About a month ago a fellow homeschooler reminded me about FlashMaster. She'd used it with her children and was convinced that it would solve my issues.

I am so glad I listened to her and bought two for my kids.

My only complaint is that I didn't buy them sooner.

Our goal is for the children to do the "timed flash cards" so fast that it takes them less than 1.5 seconds per problem.

Every morning, my kids know to do 20-30 min on the FlashMaster while I make breakfast and feed the dogs. Each child competes against his/her self. This is a BIG deal in our overly competitive household. I love anything that takes the focus off competing with a sibling and onto competing with one's self.

I love how I can go into each unit and see how the children are doing on their problems. It's also useful that besides the standard, 1+3=?, 4-3=?. 3x4=? etc, you can also do things like, 32/?=4 or 3+?=12.

Last week I sat down and quickly taught the kids the basics of the next few things we are going to learn in math; long division, factorization, lowest common denominators, factor reduction, improper fractions and mixed numbers. I have two children who are champing at the bit. They are desperate to sink their teeth into meatier math. I can see that they understand the concepts but I know that if I let them loose on this math without automaticity of their math facts they'll become disheartened because everything will take too long to do.

it's wonderful, now they have incentive to work on their math drill. They know what exciting math is just around the corner but that they are not going to be let loose on it until they can do anything, in 1.5 seconds, that the FlashMaster throws at them.

The FlashMaster has made my life so easy. The children can practice math drill while we're driving, waiting on a sibling at an extramural activity or anytime I so wish.


Kris said...

Thanks so much for posting about this, Shez! Just this weekend, I've been contemplating a need to drill my kids in their math facts. They can all do their math correctly, but they're taking entirely too long to come up with the answers to the basic facts.

Off to check out Flash Master...

melina said...

Thanks for link. I do the flashcard thing, and you are so right: takes up too much of my time!

christinemm said...

Well it was refreshing to read your insight into this. I am usually bashed by local HSers when I say my older son struggles to memorize math facts by comments of "It is not necessary" etc.

There have been heated debates on local HS chat lists. Brutal.

I never heard of that resource.

Only my younger son (very left brained learner) learns well with paper flash cards and all his work is done alone. I don't work with him on the flash cards. Actually he is the type that learns them by just doing math but the little practice he does is with paper flash cards right now.

Our Timez Attack has been having error messages so kids have not played it in about 9 months.

Going to check out flash master, for my older son espec. Last week I was notiticing how his lack of memoriztion of the higher ends of the 8's and 9's slowed up his long division work. SIGH.

Shez said...

Christine, I've been bashed for my stance about math facts on more HS lists than I care to count. It's water off a duck's back to me. I've had real life experience with struggling math students and have brought them up to speed by concentrating initially on math facts.

I see no point in hamstringing children by not helping them automaticity in their math facts.

Denise said...

Grandpa David Snyder would be proud. He could run numbers in his head faster than anyone I knew. He 'drilled' us in math at the dinner table and made it fun. All the children would sit at his end and he would 'teach' us math 'tricks' and 'games' that had us enjoying math without realizing it. I still remember several of the games he taught us. Wonder if Marc does?

Danielle said...

Hi Shez, Thanks so much for reviewing this product. I just received it in the mail today. Joshua had it for 5 minutes and said...This is FUN! Austin, on the other hand, is having a little more challenging time with it, but he'll catch on. :) When he gets one right he's so excited. When he gets one wrong....he's almost devastated.

christinemm said...

Hi Shez!
Big news in the last ten days my older son the right brainer who struggled w math facts finally memorized all the multiplication facts, at age 12 thanks to the Flashmaster.

Then yesterday younger son The Competitor demanded to be checked as he felt he knew them all too after using Flashmaster. Indeed he has memorized up through 12x12.

Thanks again for your post on Flashmaster which is where I learned of this product.

My kids are going to work on division now although it should be a snap since they know their times tables (old school lingo LOL).

We used it 10-15 minutes a day except when we forgot. On busy days with homeschool classes we often took it in the car & they did it while commuting to the class.


Anonymous said...


Thank you so much for posting this about Flash Master. I tried to go to their site but it is either offline right now or no longer active? I found the Flash Master at Amazon for $49.95 and wanted to check with you before purchase- is this the normal cost of Flash Master? I know Amazon is normally pretty good with prices being accurate but there is a once in a while that it is way higher than it should be.
Thank you so much.
Teaching for Him,
Jennifer Hyatt

Shez said...


it's back online

It costs $49.95, so the Amazon price is good. Also, Amazon will give you free shipping.

Christine, thanks for the good feedback. We still do 10 min a day of Flashmaster. The kids mastered their tables a long time ago, but I feel the need to keep them on their toes. We've been working with fractions and I can see how the Flashmaster has helped with that.

Anonymous said...

Superb blog you have here but I was curious if you knew of any discussion boards that cover the same topics discussed in this article?

I'd really like to be a part of community where I can get responses from other experienced people that share the same interest.

If you have any recommendations, please let me know.

Appreciate it!

Shez said...

I'm not sure of all the groups for younger kids anymore, but if you look on Facebook, you should find some good groups. Secular, Eclectic, Academic (SEA) Homeschoolers is a very large, very active group where you could get some good advice.

I also like the message boards over at The Well-Trained Mind. The people on those boards tend to be classical homeschoolers and have very good ideas.