FETC: Fact Fluency: The Phonics of Mathematics

I took in an excellent eye-opening session by Ted Hasselbring from the University of Kentucky today on Fact Fluency: The Phonics of Mathematics.

He argued very persuasively from many research projects that he and his colleagues have conducted that, just as we have phonics in reading to develop literacy fluency, we need a similar program for mathematics.

The session was VERY well attended, a shocker for a seminar on teaching mathematics, and we were all rewarded with uncommon insights.

If I can butcher his carefully built arguments and cut to the chase, he’s saying that reaching fluency in basic math facts (basic addition, subtraction, multiplication, and division) is an essential precursor to higher order mathematical operations.

How do you know when you’re fluent? When you can quickly and easily repeat, with high accuracy, a particular task or activity.

What this does is free up working memory (RAM) which in humans is so pitifully limited (and it’s hard to buy more) by putting the basic facts in long-term memory. Then, when needed, they are recalled in seconds from long-term memory (hard disk), not recomputed laboriously every single time, and the freed-up working memory can be used to work on higher order processes.

Great presentation, great research, great results.

Hasselbring and colleagues have created software which assesses a student’s fluency level and works on developing more fluency, intelligently, 1 or 2 extra facts at a time, until a student is fluent. Usually this takes about 90 10-minute sessions, but you should only do 1 session each day.

The software is being brought out commercially by Tom Snider productions, and looks to be an incredible aide to elementary teachers (and those middle and high school teachers who have to put up with mathematically illiterate kids later).

The beauty of the system is that special needs kids are helped to an even greater degree than average kids, and teachers can bring special needs kids right up to the average kids’ levels of math literacy fairly easily and reliably.