Math Facts Madness

I attended a meeting hosted by the first grade teachers to prepare for math facts madness! The meeting was a “state of the first grade” discussion, and the main focus was upcoming math facts tests. This is my second time around the math facts race track. I will admit that I am the kind of mom who sits with my child every night and runs flashcards for 10 minutes (hey, I am a teacher and a rule follower, and I was told to practice every night– I can’t help myself).

math facts

Many parents dread math fact tests and wish the whole process would go away, but it does have long term benefits. Students who have automatic recall of math facts by 4th grade can handle long division, multi digit multiplication, and higher level math concepts more easily because they are not struggling to do the small stuff. The head of the primary grades at our school compared math facts to letter sounds. If students don’t know how letter sounds work, they can’t combine the letters into words and sentences. Math facts are your building blocks to bigger math ideas. Even though it may seem like your child will never master math facts, there are strategies to help make the process easier.

Math Facts at Home

  • Make flashcards using 3 x 5 notecards. Write the math fact on the front of the card vertically since math fact tests are typically set up with the math problems presented vertically. Use a Sharpie pen to write on the front and write the answer on the back in pencil, so the answer won’t show through the card.
  • Spend no more than ten minutes at a time running the flashcards. There is more benefit to small amounts of daily review rather than one big chunk of study time the night before the math facts test. If you your child really wants to master the math facts, there really is no way around practicing every school night.
  • Plan to review 5 nights a week.
  • There is no need to practice all of the cards. As a student practices math facts, keep two piles of flashcards. One pile should be the cards kids know without hesitation. The other pile is the math facts that take longer to answer. Continue to practice the more difficult pile. Occasionally mix some cards in from the easy pile, but don’t feel you have to practice every single math fact every single night.
  • At our school, students graduate to the higher numbers upon mastery of the lower numbers. We start with addition and subtraction facts for the 1s, 2s, and 3s. When a student passes this first test, he/she will add the 4s math facts but will need to maintain the previous facts. Create sample tests in the style of the school’s test and practice them at home. Include a variety of facts on the test.

math facts

Math Facts at School

  • The point of the math facts test is to demonstrate automatic recall, so students need to complete the tests in a short amount of time. A little strategy can help if your student gets nervous when the timer starts. Move left to right across the test and top to bottom– just like reading a book. Do not jump around. Have a system for filling in answers.
  • Be prepared to skip, skip, skip. Often students will fixate on one problem while the clock runs down. Do not pause at one problem too long. If the answer isn’t produced quickly, skip the problem and come back after reaching the end of the test if time allows.
  • Make flashcards of any of the missed problems and practice those flashcards only. It is ideal to practice only two missed math facts at a time. Once the two missed facts are mastered, then add two more that were more difficult until a passing grade is earned.
  • If your child is truly not improving on his or her math facts tests, speak to the teacher. Some teachers will let a student take a test before school without the distraction of other students or let a student call out answers orally to the teacher in a one-on-one situation. This will build confidence, so the student can then take the test whole group.
  • It is not the end of the world if your child never completes a 50 problem math facts test in 2 1/2 minutes (or whatever the goal is at your school). But, it is worth regular review during the school year even if your child never gets that speedy.

math facts

Math Facts Resources

  • Nothing beats a plain old paper flashcard. Students can use these on their own or with a partner. We even keep a set in the car, and Mr. Star Wars will practice for ten minutes on the drive to school. I imagine Miss Priss will do the same.
  • Try to create rhymes or clues to help cement the answers. I think most people are familiar with the 9s trick for multiplication up through 9×9 where you separate the sum and the two numbers total 9.
    • 9×2 = 18– 1 is one less than 2, and 1 and 8 add up to 9
    • 9×3 = 27– 2 is one less than 3, and 2 and 7 add up to 9
    • 9×4 = 36– 3 is one less than 4, and 3 and 6 add up to 9
  • We have one website and one app we use for a little variety. There are a ton of choices out there. If you are looking for an online tool, try to find practice where you can set the time, the operation, and the maximum numbers that will be viewed in the problems. That way you can target the practice to the range you need. Here are two online resources I like.
  • Give your child practice paper tests likes the ones they will complete at school. Even use a timer to make the practice as authentic as possible. Our school combines addition and subtraction on the same test in the primary grades, and students master up to the 12’s in first grade. Below are links to homemade practice tests for my first grader.

Unfortunately, there is no magic formula that I have found to master the math facts. As much as your child may want to “wing it” there is no getting around daily practice to become really proficient. That daily practice can be in a variety of forms (flashcards, practice tests, online games, etc.), but it does require repeated review– and lots of it.

Sound Cards

sound card popcorn

Miss Priss has a new nightly homework assignment. She brings home sound cards, and we review letter and word sounds with her to practice the phonics instruction she gets at school. Miss Priss thinks it is a little boring since she already knows her letter sounds and has a pretty good reading level for a 6-year old. I am trying to explain the importance of recognizing individual letter sounds at the beginning, middle, and end of words and how letters combine to make specific sound patterns in English. My teacher explanation is lost on her.

TheRoomDad actually saved the day on this one because he started creating word games at the dinner table that take care of the sound practice without making it seem like we are running flashcards (point for TheRoomDad). Any child at the beginning stages of reading needs a good foundation of letter sounds and how sounds combine. This will translate into good reading and spelling skills down the road when kids encounter unfamiliar words. Whether your family has actual sound cards or not, play some sound activities at the dinner table, in the car, during bath time, walking down the aisles at the grocery store, or any random free moment to reinforce good reading skills.

This is a

This is a “giggling pig” and actually represents the short “i” sound. Miss Priss thinks the card should have an igloo rather than the giggling pig.

Name words that have a particular sound at the beginning, middle, or end of a word.

  • Give your child a starting sound/letter and call out any words that begin with that sound. If you call out “M” as in marshmallow, name other words that start with the “M” sound (monkey, mommy, moon). Now move the “M” sound to the end of words. Call out any words where you can hear the “M” at the end (home, lamb, room, clam). Don’t worry if the word is not spelled with an “M” at the end. For this activity, children are listening for the sound only. Now, find words with the “M” sound in the middle. This activity is the hardest (lemon, computer, hammer). If you want to throw a little extra challenge in the mix, try to think of words that have the “M” sound in the beginning AND middle (mummy, mermaid).

sound card letters on back

Create a whole sentence that includes words that all start with the same sound.

  • This is harder than you might think. Throw out a sound and see if your child can create a whole sentence with words that start with the same sound. You could also play a game where each person adds one word going around in a circle. Try making a sentence will all “S” sounds at the beginning, for example (Sally swam speedily). See who can make the longest sentence with words that all start with the same letter.

Find pictures in magazines, catalogs, reading books, etc. that have specific letter sounds at the beginning, middle, or end.

Give a category and name any words that start with a specific letter sound for that category (animals, desserts, jobs, sports, etc.).

sound card lamb

Not only will these simple strategies build sound awareness, they will also build vocabulary. It may seem super easy to a child to list words that match a letter sound, but it will strengthen phonics skills and contribute to better reading skills in later grades. Anyone have suggestions for other simple word games you can play with children that will have a positive impact on reading and spelling skills?


The Right Reading Level


One of TheRoomDad’s best friends, affectionately known as Uncle Burrito at our house, visited a few months back and asked me about book recommendations for his 2nd grader. His daughter is a crazy good reader and not only finishes books at mock speed, she also reads at a level that is much higher than an average 8 year old. He said that she finishes books on the ride home from the library or book store, and the book never even makes it into the house. He wanted book ideas that might slow her pace a little but also have content that is suitable for a 2nd grader.


How do you help your child pick a book when they are reading at a higher level than their age?

  • First of all, it is OK to read below reading level. It increases fluency, supports comprehension, and minimizes frustration. In fact, I often encourage reading at the low end of a child’s reading range when reading for pleasure or during “free reading” time.
  • Think about books you loved as a child and recommend those titles. I find that classic books stand the test of time very well, and I think the content is not nearly as “edgy” as some literature that is published today. 
  • Find a series that your child loves. This is a great way to buy some time before you have to come up with more titles. If you can find a series with a good first book, chances are the content will stay at about the same level in all of the books.
  • Not only can you follow a series, you can also follow an author. But, some authors write for a young and older audience, so pay attention. Think about Judy Blume’s Forever versus Tales of a Fourth Grade Nothing.
  • Read the book jacket or online summary of a book. If the synopsis mentions death, destruction, or “coming of age” (translation = puberty or romance), that is a red flag that the content may be for an older child.
  • Our library has a new eReader service. You can check out books through your iPad, and they download to your device. The book is deleted from your iPad on the due date. This won’t slow down your speedy reader, but it will reduce your visits to the book store and library.

Here are a few book options that are high reading level for the grade but “clean” content.

Advanced 1st/2nd Grade Reader:

  • All of a Kind Family by Sydney Taylor, 4.9
  • The Black Stallion by Walter Farley, 6.5
  • The Candy Shop War by Brandon Mull, 4.6
  • Cricket in Times Square by George Selden, 5.9
  • The Doll People by Ann M. Martin, 3.8
  • Henry Huggins series by Beverly Cleary, 4.1-5.7
  • The Indian in the Cupboard series, 5.5-6.1
  • The Last of the Really Great Whangdoodles by Julie Edwards, 7.3
  • The Lemonade War series, 3.4-4.5
  • Little House series by Laura Ingalls Wilder, 4.3-5.3
  • The Million Dollar Putt by Dan Gutman, 4.5
  • No Talking (5.0) and School Story (4.7) by Andrew Clements
  • Poppy and Friends series by Avi, 3.5-5.8
  • Ramona series by Beverly Cleary, 3.5-5.9
  • The Secret Garden (6.8) and The Little Princess (4.0) by Frances Hodges Burnett
  • The Sherlock Files series by Tracy Barrett, 4.3
  • Tuesdays at the Castle by Jessica George, 3.0
  • Who Was series by various authors, 3.0-4.0

Advanced 3rd/4th Grade Reader:

  • Far North by Will Hobbs, 6.8
  • How to Train Your Dragon series by Cressida Cowell, 5.7-7.4
  • The Incredible Journey by Sheila Burnford, 8.1
  • My Side of the Mountain by Jean Craighead George, 6.1
  • The Mysterious Benedict Society series by Trenton Lee Stewart, 6.3
  • Urchin of the Riding Stars by M.I. McAllister, not leveled
  • Peter and the Starcatchers by Dave Barry and Ridley Pearson, 6.2
  • Princess Academy by Shannon Hale (sequel has a little romance), 5.0
  • Remarkable by Lizzie K.. Foley, not leveled
  • The Secret Series by Pseudonymous Bosch, 5.3
  • The White Mountains series, 6.1
  • The Wizard of Oz series by Frank Baum, 6.9

Reading Levels

  • I included a reading level for each book/series on the list. This is a guideline only. 4.3 is roughly where a typical student would be in the 3rd month of 4th grade. For more information on leveling books you can read this article on the Scholastic website. Not only are books leveled by content, they also look at the length of words and sentences. More words with lots of syllables might bump up the reading level. So, The Last of the Really Great Whangdoodles, which has words like Papilionaceous, earns a higher level.