Stop Using Multiplication Flashcards - Do This Instead
The teacher passed out the papers- all face down. This was the only time of the week you could hear a pin drop in the classroom as students kept quiet and looked up trying to run over their facts one more time. After the papers had been passed and the teacher made her slow way up to the front of the room, she pressed the button on the timer and a flutter of paper and pencils would begin as we all tried to dump the facts we remembered onto the paper in front of us. Though the multiplication questions were in random order we had practiced seeking out our favorites first. As hard as I tried, I could never get all the answers filled in. I would often only get the paper half filled before I stared at the page willing myself to remember more while my throat felt like it was going to collapse on itself. As the timer beeped signaling the allotted time had passed, I sank in my chair knowing I would never get to add another “fact scoop” to the ice cream cone with my name on it displayed on the wall with the others.
Looking back on my memories of timed multiplication tests as an educator with a little distance from the anxiety- I now understand why I wasn’t able to master my facts until I was much older. First, timed tests can impair working memory by triggering fight or flight responses in the brain. Second, I know now that straight memorization was never going to work for me. I wasn’t going to be able to hear or see a fact and spit out a number automatically. I needed to learn strategies to build on the facts I knew. I needed something more than flashcards. Now, with thousands of hours of teaching and tutoring under my belt, I’ve observed that many students need the same.
If your child is struggling to memorize their multiplication facts using traditional methods such as flash cards and fast paced games, they may need a different approach to fact fluency. Just because your child isn’t great at memorization, doesn’t mean they can’t recall their facts quickly. If multiplication practice is causing your child heartache, hide the flashcards for a bit and try these methods of learning instead.
It can be helpful for your child to get hands-on experience with multiplication facts as they begin to focus on fluency. This can happen in two steps.
Step 1: Understanding multiplication as repeating groups of objects (repeated addition).
Before a student can remember multiplication facts, they have to know how multiplication works. Make sure your child can arrange objects to represent multiplication facts or situations that require multiplication. To test this out, say a fact out loud, like 3 x 5, and ask your child to create it using manipulatives. If your child struggles to model multiplication, work with them on this skill before moving on. This can be done with any small to medium size object. I personally love using erasers from the Target Dollar Spot.
Step 2: Understanding arrays and their connection to multiplication.
Once your child understands multiplication as repeated groups, and can represent multiplication in this way, they need to begin to arrange their groups into columns and rows (this will be helpful later on as they begin to build fluency). First, you can discuss arranging the groupings from the previous step into columns and rows like in the picture below. Name the columns and rows and discuss how this relates to the multiplication problem you’re focusing on. Once your child understands grouping their objects in this way, you can move on to using square tiles to make a true array with no gaps between objects. I like using back splash tiles from Home Depot.
Form Strategies using What They Know
When your child is familiar with how to visualize multiplication facts, you can move on to fluency practice. Though we don’t want to focus on memorization in the traditional sense, the goal will always be for your child to recall multiplication facts as quickly as possible. They will naturally memorize some facts that they gravitate toward (like 2’s, 5’s or 10’s), and use these facts to form strategies to recall the rest of their facts. You can help your child create their own flashcard alternatives with the fact on front and their chosen strategy for remembering that fact on the back. This will help you prompt them with the strategy if they’re having trouble remembering. This will also help your child practice using their strategies to recall quickly. Check out the example below:
This student is working on their strategy for 3 x 7
First they build the fact using tiles.
Then they find a way to split the tiles into facts they know. Here, they know their fives and twos facts well, so they split the fact into (3 x 5) + (3 x 2).
When they feel comfortable with the strategy they’ve formed (it might take a couple of tries), they write the strategy prompt on the back of their fact card. This can also be accompanied by a drawing.