The Problem with Flash Cards and What to Do Instead 
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In the seventh grade classroom, parents filled every seat and stood along the walls too as I listened to my son’s teacher explain classroom policies. As I scanned the room, I could see looks of concern on parent’s faces as they squirmed in their seat waiting for her to pause for questions.
Hands shot up into the air with rapid fire questions about their struggling child.
“My son is failing math class. What can we do at home?”
“Where are the textbooks? Why doesn’t anyone use textbooks anymore?”
Next, she mentioned a common problem most middle school teachers face, math fact memorization.
More than half of her students have NOT mastered their math facts. (These are 7th graders folks!)
This teacher knows that getting math facts solidified in your head is like learning your alphabet letters. They are the very foundation for all mathematical learning. Without the ability to recall math facts quickly, your child will have a tough time making room for new information.
Someone blurted out the obvious question, “What can we do to help them with memorizing their math facts?”
I shifted from leaning against the bookcase and cringed a little as I listened to her suggestions:
Daily practice and flash cards
My eyes darted over to the parent that asked the question, her face said it all.
Rote memorization has been the go-to method for many years along with tricks with fingers, songs, timed tests, and the like. It works for a select few kids, but for a large population of students, flash cards are failing them because it doesn’t draw upon the way the brain learns, which is through the senses.
The problem with flash cards… they are abstract.
The numeral 9 is a symbol for the quantity of nine. That is an abstract idea and takes time to develop. When the brain is making sense of quantity, it needs to move from concrete, to representational, to abstract. Even teenagers need time with making math concrete, but yet we spend a lot of time working in the abstract.
Phase 1: Concrete
Phase 2: Representational
Phase 3: Abstract
This is why flashcards fail. They start with the abstract instead of building up to it.
Learning With Flashcards Is Like Baking Without Any Experience
My son recently wanted to make a double batch of cookies to share with our neighbors. He’s had some experience helping me with baking, but hasn’t ever done it on his own.
I handed him the recipe and went about my business.
A half hour later, he came to me and said he had done something wrong but couldn’t figure out what it was. I came into the kitchen to find a large bowl full of butter colored powder.
I realized he didn’t understand the directions.
He didn’t know what creaming the butter and sugars meant.
Baking was abstract for him.
Had I started with working in the kitchen beside him and explicitly walking him through the concrete experience of what creaming sugar and butter was like, we would have had better results.
How to Help Kids Master Math Facts Once and For All
Start With Concrete Math Facts
When you think of concrete math, think items that you can feel in your hands, like playdough, stickers, and blocks. They have weight and shape to them. These are the very methods that are going to help your child master her math facts.
You don’t need to go back to the very beginning. Start with the math fact family your child doesn’t know. Work on sets of numbers until they have it mastered.
Then Move to Representational and Abstract Math Facts
Once your teen has a concrete understanding and then working towards rapid recall, you’ll want to start focusing on using representational and abstract methods.
Mnemonics are also another method to support rapid recall of math facts that are understood at a concrete level. Many of my students that are great verbal communicators have thrived on a program designed to help recall of the upper times tables called Times Tales.
I’m also a big supporter of using software to pull teens into daily practice. All of the below links are tween and teen approved.
Best Math Fact Apps for Kids
- Quick Math (Shiny Things): This is a great app for iPhone and iPad. Various levels of difficulty and students write answers on the screen vs typing in the answer. My kids like racing against their own time.
- Number Pieces (Clarity Innovations): Inside of this app, students build numbers using pieces that represent their value. Students will recognize these as they are Common Core Math friendly. Use this app to practice working with place value and to warm up the brain to work with visual representations of math equations.
- Math Vs Zombies 2 (TaptoLearn): Kids love gross stuff, why not put zombies and math together. This app is Common Core Math friendly and works towards helping students understand concepts as well as memorize facts. Great for tweens.
Best Computer Games for Learning Math Facts
- Education.com: Lots of great games to practice basic math facts quickly. Although it does have a younger child feel to it, it can be beneficial to practice.
- Math X-Lines: My students have always loved this game and my kids do too! It’s simple to play: shoot the ball at the other that matches up to the sum you are trying to make. Like if you were working on sums of 10, you would shoot a 3 at a 7 ball. Serious fun.
- Crazy Taxi: Another fun game for math fact practice in a non-threatening environment. Only annoying thing about this site is the ads. You have to listen to 5 minutes of them before the game turns on. Consider purchasing a subscription.
The Hardest Part for Parents
Practicing 10 minutes a day will lead to mastery. This is the most painful part for parents. I get it! I can barely remember to take care of my own needs, let alone make sure my child gets his 10 minutes of practice each day.
Find ways to wiggle it into your daily routine. Reward your child for doing it. Then reward yourself for making sure practice gets done.
A Note for All the “Been There, Done That” Parents
Keep in mind that having total mastery of all math facts may not happen. Many adults cannot quickly tell you that 8 x 7 is 56. But you can gain sufficient skills to be proficient in math.
Rapid recall might not be obtainable for your child. If given additional time, your child will be able to grab those math facts from her memory.
If you find yourself feeling like you’ve been there and done that with many of these suggestions, it’s time to reach out to a professional for help. Connect with one of our recommended tutors, Kara Scanlon. Let’s get this back on track.
Not sure if tutoring is the right fit? Download my checklist to find out.
Owner of Math for Middles
I’m the owner and creator of the math videos here at Math for Middles. I’ve tutored students for over ten years. When I am not creating here, you’ll find me down by the river with my family. You can read more about me here and how I once was a middle schooler too.