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Can't Memorize Those Dreaded Math Facts!

Please note: This article was originally posted in March of 2011.  Because many parents question why their child cannot memorize math facts, I am posting the article again.

Many of my college students come to me without knowing their math facts. Some do, but most do not. Since we use calculators in the class, it really isn't an issue.  It just takes those students longer to do a test or their homework. One day, the students in my Basic Algebra Concepts class (a remedial math class) were playing a math game to practice adding and subtracting positive and negative numbers. We were using double die (see picture) where a small dice is located inside a larger dice. (I have to keep an eye on these because they tend to "disappear". The students love them!)  I noticed one of my students continually counting the dots on the die. He was unable to see the group of dots and know how many were in the set.  It was then that I realized he could not subitize sets. (to perceive at a glance the number of items presented)

Subitizing sets means that a person can look at a grouping or a set and identify how many there are without individually counting them.  (i.e. three fingers that are held up)  When a child is unable to do this, they cannot memorize math facts since memorizing is associating an abstract number with a concrete set.  Many teachers as well as parents fail to recognize the root cause of this memorization problem.  AND no amount of practicing, bribing, yelling, or pulling out your hair will change the situation.  So what can you do?

First of all, the problem must be identified.  Use a dice and see if the child must count each dot on each face. Try holding up fingers or laying out sets of candy (M&M's - yummy!) or using dominoes. Put five beans in a container, and ask the child how many are in the box. (They may count them the first few times.)  Take them out, and put them back in.  Ask the child again how many there are.  If, after several times, s/he is unable to recognize the set as a whole, then s/he cannot subitize sets.

How do you help such a child?  If you have small children at home, begin the subitization of sets by holding up various combinations of fingers.  My granddaughter just turned four; so, we worked on holding up two fingers on one hand and two fingers on the other; then one and three fingers, and of course, four fingers. I also like to use dominoes. They already have set groupings which can be identified, added, subtracted, and even multiplied. A dice is great because the child thinks you are playing a game, not doing math.  Roll one dice, and ask the child to identify the set of dots. Try the bean idea, but continue to change the number of beans in the box.  My granddaughters love the candy idea because they are allowed to eat them when we are done.  (All children need a little sugar now and then even though their parents try to control the intake.  I love being a Grandma!)

Gregory Tang has written two wonderful books for older children, The Grapes of Math and Math for All Seasons, which emphasize subitizing sets. At times, I even use them in my college classes!  I was fortunate to attend two of his workshops presented by Creative Mathematics. He not only has a sense of humor, but his books can be read again and again without a child becoming bored. Check them out! 

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