400 Reasons Your Kid Needs FactFreaks

Being a kid is harder than you remember.

Take learning to read. It should be simple: learn the 26 letters of the alphabet, and then use them along with spelling patterns to sound out printed words until they match words you know in your head, and that make sense in context.

It’s not so simple. American English isn’t phonetic; it’s a mishmash of words from written languages around the globe with wildly differing spelling patterns. This underlying problem is under-acknowledged, and therefore seldom addressed. (The consequence? Too many American kids never manage to crack the code and learn to read, and the “reading wars” between advocates of phonics and whole-language - neither of which account for the root problem - rage on.)

Learning basic math is similarly complicated by hidden realities - 400 of them. Kids need to master 400 basic math facts (100 addition facts, from 0+0 to 9+9; 100 subtraction facts, from 0-0 to 18-9; 100 multiplication facts, from 0x0 to 9x9; and 100 division facts, from 0/0, which is undefined, to 81/9) if they’re ever going to have a chance of mastering math.

Wait, what? 400 facts? If this is true, why doesn’t anyone talk about it? Two reasons: 1.) educators have undercounted the number of facts by half with the misguided notion that if kids know their addition and multiplication facts, they’ll naturally reverse them to determine their subtraction and division facts (they won’t), and 2.) why dwell on a problem of that size if you don’t have the means to solve it?

Why indeed, especially when you consider that the number of facts is only a small part of the problem. Kids need to be able to recall each one of those 400 facts instantly for them to be useful at all; a kid who’s still spending time trying to count backwards with their fingers or drawing groups of circles to figure out 8x9 (or is taking the time to type problems into a calculator, even) is not going to be able to keep up in math class.

**Teachers are intimately aware of this dilemma, of course – if you would like to read more detail about the attempted, yet failed solutions, I’ve added them to the end of the article.

You’re probably wondering if kids really have to commit all of the 400 basic facts to memory. The answer is sort of. They do need to be prepared to answer 400 possible questions, but even if you eliminate the double-counting of the “turn-around” facts (like 3+7 and 7+3) and consider the identity property facts (6+0 = 6, 7x1=7) in each operation and the zero property facts in multiplication (anythingx0=0) to be no more than a single fact, you still end up with a whopping 249 distinct facts that must be committed to memory - almost 10 times the number of letters in the alphabet!

See now why so many kids reach middle school without knowing their math facts? How in the world is a teacher supposed to get all of those kids to the point of instant recall with those 249 facts when all they have to work with is flash cards, speed tests, and maybe a few cartoony semi-educational computer games? How can a parent working one-on-one with a single kid even manage to do it?

The answer is, they can’t. It’s simply too much.

But fortunately, the kids themselves can.

Let me summarize here. If you’re worried about a kid who isn’t up to speed with their math facts, stop with the speed tests, put away the flashcards, give up on the “fun and games” math sites - and just put ‘em on FactFreaks - I mean like right now. It takes a minute to play, they can play anywhere on any device, and they’ll pick up both speed and accuracy with all 400 possible facts and you won’t even have to lift a finger.

How do I know? Because my students and former students are crazy fast and accurate with their math facts - and I haven’t lifted a finger to get any of them up to speed since we first created FactFreaks fifteen years ago.

Oh, and just so you know, FactFreaks is free and always will be - so you have as many as 400 reasons to try it with your kid, and not a single reason not to.

**For further in-depth insight on this topic, read on:

Teachers have tried to cope by giving speed tests (which may assess speed and accuracy but don’t help kids develop them - and which cover only a fraction of the facts anyway), by drilling with flashcards (which is simply torture when you consider the number of facts times the number of kids), or by simply going on to more complex math and hoping the kids will pick up the facts - and pick up speed with them - as they go along (and which is like hoping kids will learn the alphabet by first learning to read). Of course, very little of this has worked (how could it?) and thus the #1 complaint of middle school teachers everywhere continues to be “How can I teach [fractions/decimals/negatives/algebra/geometry statistics/probability] to kids who don’t know their basic math facts?!” One "solution" has consistently been to send the task as homework and let the parents deal with the drill and kill. But why should parents be punished?

Before I get to the solution to this age-old problem, let me be clear about what I’m not calling for: mere memorization. Math facts are math above all, and thus, like all math, they must be explored and comprehended tangibly, visually, and symbolically - not stored as meaningless data; future articles will describe powerful ways to build deep conceptual understanding of all four operations. That said, we can’t be lulled into thinking that “mere understanding” is enough, either. As with the basics of athletics or musicianship, basic math facts must be automatized - or hard-wired into the subconscious through repeated practice - to make more complex and dependent skill development possible; understanding how to swing a bat or play your scales can make you a competent hitter or piano player, but only if you work them into muscle memory through repeated practice, practice, practice.

Which brings me back to the beginning: being a kid is harder than you remember.

Steve Hare

Math-Whisperer. Humanist.
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