Outside the cafeteria at Kathryn Winn Primary School, a couple of first grade students gather around a poster of a pointed wizard’s cap hanging on the wall. The large cut-out cap has about 15 small cardboard wizard caps stuck to it with Velcro, each with a different student’s first name written on it. Thirty-one wizard caps line both sides of the hall, each one representing a higher level of mathematical wizardry.
“I passed my twos and threes!” said one of the students to his classmate as he peeled his small wizard cap off of the large cap labeled “Level 2 (2s & 3s)” and moved it to the next large wizard cap to his right labeled “Level 3 (4s & 5s).”
The caps are part of Winn’s Math Wizards program, which helps students to learn basic math facts quickly, by sight, using a computer program called Math Facts in a Flash. First and second grade students spend ten minutes each day on the program, which quizzes them on addition and subtraction of the numbers between 0-20, similar to how one would use math flash cards, each with a different math problem. The students must complete 20 questions in a set amount of time without any errors to move on to the next level.
For example, when the problem 6+3= flashes on the screen, the student clicks on 9, which is one of three possible answers. The computer lets the student know if the student answers correctly or not. If the student answers all twenty questions adding 2s and 3s correctly, he or she passes “Twos and Threes” and moves on the “Fours and Fives.”
Gerda Wise, principal of Kathryn Winn Primary School, said that she started the Math Wizards program so that students would be able to meet the new National Common Core State Standards adopted by the Kentucky School Board in 2010. To meet the standard, a first grade student should be able to add and subtract numbers between 1-10 with fluency in order to be ready for second grade. Also, by the end of second grade, all students should be able to add and subtract numbers between 1-20.
“Students get so excited when they pass sections,” said Wise. “They’ll say, ‘Ms. Wise, I passed my threes and fours’ or ‘…my fives and sixes.”
Wise said it’s important for students to master their math facts because it frees up the cognitive space for them to do harder problem solving. She compared learning math facts to recognizing sight words when learning to read. She also cited research by Dr. Donald B. Crawford, which gives four basic reasons that students should memorize their math facts:
1. Students who know simple math facts will be better able to know whether an answer makes sense when using calculators
2. Math facts help them “estimate” more accurately
3. Students slow at math facts are less likely to learn more complex math problem types
4. Understanding of fractions and algebra is greatly inhibited if basic facts are not learned
“If students had to sound out every word, they wouldn’t read fast enough for the words to make sense as a whole,” said Wise.
Second grade teacher, Megan Leach, said she likes Math Facts in a Flash because students can work at their own pace. Leach has students working on various levels, but she said they all get excited when they pass a section and get to move their wizard cap to a higher level.
At the end of the day, Wise recognizes those students who have advanced to a new level in Math Facts in a Flash. She plays the Kool and the Gang song “Celebration” over the intercom then reads off the list of students who have passed one of the 31 different levels.
Wise said Math Facts in a Flash is a great tool for helping students to master their math facts but that the classroom teacher working with students through the regular Everyday Mathematics curriculum is the most important factor in students meeting their mathematics standards.
“The teacher looks at the individual student and teaches the strategies the child needs,” said Wise.
She also said that parents working with their children at home can help them answer math problems more quickly by practicing strategies they use naturally like counting forward from the larger of the two numbers when adding or counting backward when subtracting. Parents can also help their children learn their math facts by practicing with flash cards or logging onto the Renaissance Learning website which offers online practice. Students can get even more practice before school by being dropped off at school as early as 7:30 a.m.
Wise said that although the school is trying to get student to think quickly, the process of learning the math facts is accomplished very deliberately, one step at a time.
“I tell students it’s like the tortoise and the hare,” said Wise. “Slow and steady pace wins the race.”