The first question is often, “What are math facts?” Math facts are the instant recall of addition, subtraction, multiplication, and division of whole numbers without the use of solving strategies. Basically, kids should be able to perform functions with whole numbers (2+3, 3×4, 8/2, and so on) from memory.

The students that come to me failing or have already failed a class cannot recall math facts. In some cases, they have reached high school and still struggle with basic facts such as, 9×8 or 12×8 (the 8’s table seems to be a big problem, and I sometimes wonder if there’s a conspiracy against it.) Add to that, starting in middle school (around seventh grade), teachers allow the use of calculators. The kids rejoice, and much to my dismay, they will use it for everything. We’ll be working a two-step equation, and they stop to input 5+3 into their calculator. It is unbelievably frustrating, and a waste of time. I pick my battles, but I usually call them out.

I understand how hard this can be. I struggled with addition and subtraction throughout elementary school. A friend, Laura, who is a fabulous middle school teacher nowadays, patiently spent a summer working on these skills with me. I am forever grateful to her for turning around a rough start in math.

Students bemoan that they never memorized their multiplication tables because they couldn’t learn numbers that way, so they’ve just accepted it. This excuse never sits well. I know without mastery of math facts, they will struggle to learn any new concept. It will take them twice as long to learn foundation concepts such as factoring quadratics, simplifying radicals, solving systems of equations, and so on. Most importantly, it is a major risk factor for them failing high school math.

The other question that I get all time, “How do I fix it?” There are no simple answers, and the kids weren’t wrong when they said rote memorization didn’t work for them. They may process information differently, so flash cards or writing out their tables a hundred times doesn’t stick. They need different strategies. There are songs for each of the multiplication tables, but most are geared toward elementary kids, and getting a middle or high school kid to use them is next to impossible.

I like the idea of math games much more. The site Math4Love has many free games available for download. There are iPhone/iPad apps; search math facts games, and the list is extensive. My family loves board games, and a few games that help with math are Machi Koro, Incan Gold, Splendor, and Manila. If you’re playing a game that needs a banker, then give your kid the job. They may take a little longer, but it encourages them to work on addition and subtraction (no calculators allowed). Playing with numbers is a much better way to learn math facts than boring memorization work.

When you’re at a store or restaurant figuring out a discount or a tip, give the problem to your child. They need to see the importance of math in everyday life. They may argue, “I have a calculator on my phone, and I always have my phone. I don’t need to do this stuff in my head.” Again, they’re right. We do always have a calculator handy, but their success in higher level math depends on this skill. Sneak math into as many situations as possible, be persistent. They have to use math to get better at it.

Next Week: Finger perception and building a better math brain.