by Margaret Groves, M.Phil., M.Ed.
Why is it so important for children to memorize math facts in order to succeed academically? Quite simply, a lack of fluency in basic math fact recall significantly hinders a child's subsequent progress with problem-solving, algebra and higher-order math concepts. This can have a serious impact on a child's overall self confidence and general academic performance.
There has been controversy about the need to memorize math facts since the introduction of significant reforms in math curriculum in the 1990s, which largely replaced rote memorization with a new emphasis on integrative math teaching. This involves teaching many different concepts at the same time instead of sequentially, and using manipulatives in place of numbers to illustrate mathematical concepts long after number sense should have been mastered.
Leading researchers have cautioned that this has resulted in a math curriculum that is too complex in the early grades, introducing advanced mathematical concepts before children have mastered basic computation.
A report by Tom Loveless, Director of the Brown Center on Education Policy at the Brookings Institution, Washington DC, states that "Youngsters who have not mastered whole number arithmetic by the end of 4th grade are at risk of later becoming remedial students in mathematics" (http://www.ed.gov/rschstat/research/progs/mathscience/loveless.html) and urges that every student in the nation should receive a thorough grounding in arithmetic.
Another article, "The Arithmetic Gap" by Tom Loveless and John Coughlan, published in Educational Leadership (February 2004; p55-59), looks at the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) math testing and explains that, although trends in overall math achievement are positive, this masks a very significant decline in computational skills over the last decade. Loveless and Coughlan suggest that students' ability to add, subtract, divide and multiply is partly suffering because of the use of calculators in elementary classrooms (4th graders who use calculators daily on classwork have significantly lower scores than those who do not) and partly because of the math "reform" standards and new National Council of Teachers of Mathematics (NCTM) curricula that became popular in the early 1990s.
A concept paper on the US Department of Education website (http://www.ed.gov/rschstat/research/progs/mathscience/concept_paper.pdf) comments on the growing controversy surrounding the reforms in math teaching methods, saying that these have de-emphasized learning basic math facts and encouraged an inappropriate dependence on calculators.
State testing may be covering up the serious deficiency in math fact education by allowing the use of calculators even during the test in the elementary grades, and by using a very low score on math multiple choice tests as the level to meet the state standards.
The NCTM has attempted to respond to the controversy by issuing its new Curriculum Focal Points, released on September 12th, 2006 and available as a free download from www.nctm.org. The NCTM argues that it never intended that teachers should throw out memorization of math facts, and the new guidelines state that second graders should be able to quickly recall basic addition and subtraction facts and fourth graders must have quick recall of multiplication and division facts.
Unfortunately, schools are still failing to teach basic math fact recall successfully in the early elementary grades, and a change in the curriculum may not happen in the near future. Parents can help their own children by teaching math facts at home, and by urging their schools to re-introduce the concept of memorization of math facts.
Margaret Groves is a science writer and researcher with a passion for education. She has masters degrees in both scientific research and education, and a diploma in Montessori teaching. She was alarmed to discover, while her two children were going through elementary school and her 5th grader was unable to do long division, that there had been no strict requirement for math fact memorization.
Working with QuickReckoning, Inc. www.quickreckoning.com, she helped develop a software routine (QuickMathFacts) that would help children learn their essential math facts with just a few minutes a day of practice. Her son practiced with it for only 3 weeks, by which time he knew all the multiplication facts up to 9 x 9 by heart – his teacher was astounded as his long division suddenly improved dramatically.
Margaret wants to see as many children as possible lose their fear of math, by equipping themselves with the essential tools to succeed and move forward with middle and high school math. Without a thorough knowledge of math facts at their disposal, they become easily discouraged and begin to hate math.