You tried flashcards, timed tests, songs, even games and nothing is working. There are still some students in your class who are not mastering their multiplication facts. What do you do?
What if we embrace the idea that students don’t need to be able to do 100 multiplication facts in under ten minutes to be successful in math class. Yes, it’s great if they can, but they shouldn’t be prevented from moving on to other more exciting and challenging topics. I know some of you are shaking your heads. It goes against what many believe is important in math class.
Many of us believe that memorizing our multiplication table makes math easier. However, for some students the memorizing part isn’t so easy. This does not mean they are lazy or don’t care. Instead, memorizing a bunch of seemingly unrelated facts is harder for them then repeated addition.
Interestingly enough, these students will often invent their own strategies to compensate for their lack of fact fluency. I worked with a fourth grader who didn’t have a strong mastery of his multiplication tables. What he did have were great mental math strategies that allowed him to solve more complicated multiplication problems quicker than those who had their facts memorized.
He used a doubling and halving strategy when trying to solve a problem that was difficult for him. When presented with 15 x 4, he would double fifteen and half four, which gave him a problem (30 x 2) that he could easily do. Not only could he solve this problem quicker than his peers who memorized all their facts, I’m guessing that when he gets to algebra, creating equivalent algebraic equations to solve a problem will make sense to him.
When we look to the research, it pushes this further and suggests that students’ intuitive abilities to double numbers can be used to build their multiplication fluency.
A group of researchers worked with middle school students that were struggling with their multiplication facts. Students first strengthened their ability to double by starting with simple doubling problems (1,2,3,4,5,10) and eventually moved to more complex problems (double 97 or continuing a sequence of doubles). Throughout all of these sets, students were encouraged to explain their strategies.
Once students were fluent in doubling, the connection to multiplication was made. Through a series of progressively harder tasks, students build on their ability to double to find facts they don’t know. Eventually, students could reason about a fact like 8 x 7 by knowing double 7 is 14 and double 14 is 28 and double 28 is 56.
For more details about the activities, check out:
Flowers, J. M., & Rubenstein, R. N. (2010). Multiplication Fact Fluency Using Doubles. Mathematics teaching in the Middle school, 16(5), 296-301.