If you are a parent of an elementary school aged child, you have probably noticed that school is vastly different from when you went to school. This is especially evident in math, where the focus has changed from learning basic facts and computation to communicating about our thinking when we are solving problems. As a teacher, I have certainly noticed that students are much stronger at problem solving than I was as a child. However, I have also noticed that fewer and fewer students are able to recall basic facts quickly and accurately.
Why is this a problem? Today we have easy access to all sorts of technology that can complete those computations for us. More and more, students are being encouraged to bring technology such as Ipods and and tablets to school to assist them in research, writing and computation. We don't really need to spend hours and hours of time memorizing basic facts, doing drills (which we affectionately name “Drilling and Killing”), and playing math games to practice these facts until we know them inside out, do we?
Students who have a strong understanding of their basic facts are often much stronger students of mathematics in general. The basic fact families help students in a wide variety of other math areas, and can assist them in becoming even stronger problem solvers as well.
First of all, being able to recall basic facts assists students when they need to learn how to compute larger functions, such as multiplication of three- or four-digit numbers, or long division. Both of these skills require students to keep a great deal of information in their heads as they perform the calculations. They have to remember to line up the numbers properly, which digits to multiply first, second and so on, and finally they have to remember what the basic fact is for each step. When students know their facts, these calculations become easier because they have less that they have to hold onto – they just know it.
Secondly, and perhaps more importantly for today's learners, a strong knowledge of basic facts assists students in estimation. Why is estimation important? In short, estimation helps us identify if our solutions are close to the actual answer we calculated. It doesn't matter if we performed the computations ourselves or used technology to do them for us, we still need to be able to say to ourselves, “Yup, that seems about right.” How can we do that if we don't have an understanding of basic facts to assist us in estimating?
An understanding of basic facts also help students when they begin to learn about fractions and equivalency. When students learn about reducing fractions to lowest terms, or finding an equivalent fraction, they need to use multiplication or division to do so.
Finally, knowledge of basic facts helps students to complete algebraic problems much more easily. Students who have a strong grasp of their basic facts are often able to find missing numbers in algebraic problems much more quickly and easily than those who don't.
The ability to recall basic facts is a vital skill that we need to continue to foster in our children if we want them to be as successful as possible in mathematics. While the emphasis on problem solving and communicating thinking that is currently focused on in today's education systems is important, it can be extremely difficult for students to be able to perform these functions if they do not have a grasp on their basic facts in the first place. If you are looking for an excellent (and free!) tool to assist your child in learning basic facts, try searching for Xtramath. This program allows students to practice their facts for a few minutes each day, and tracks the ones they remember and those they don't.
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