A very simple game that kids can play to practice multiplication with their flashcards

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I have no idea what to name this game. Here are several ideas for names, and the ideas will probably give you a sense of what the game is about: Card Capture; Guess the Back; Collect Points for Knowing Stuff; Actually I Am Terrible At Naming Things, You Name It Whatever You’d Like.

Here’s how to play.

Step One: Take out a bunch of cards from your practice deck that you want to practice. Turn them to the “result” side. Shuffle them up.

Step Two: Deal out a bunch of cards. 4 works well. So does 6. Place them with the products facing up.

Step Three: Take turns. If it’s your turn, you get to pick a card and guess what is on the other side of the card. If you are correct, you get that many points. Meaning, if you guess “6 x 5” and that’s on the other side of your card, congrats, you get 30 points.

Step Four: Etc., that’s the whole game.

The only subtlety is what to do when there are multiple possibilities for what’s on the other side. I think a good way to play this could be that the other person (the non-picker, whose turn it is not) could also issue a guess as to what’s on the other side, and if the picker is wrong maybe they could steal the card? That seems a bit complicated though and what I like about this is how simple it is.

This game only makes sense if you have flashcard decks for every kid in your class, but then again why wouldn’t you? They’re great.

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Multiplication Resources for 3rd/4th Grade

As with all topics, the stronger your main curricular resource is the better. There have been years when I used a heavily modified version of Investigations for 3rd/4th Grade, but now I don’t find it as useful.

I assume that most teachers do have some main curricular resource for math, so here are the things that I use to supplement:

There are a lot of people with strong disagreements about how to teach multiplication. As in a lot of areas of my teaching, I see myself as being one of those annoying people that accepts each side’s critique of the other. I aim to teach mental strategies while also teaching facts for memory and skills for automaticity. I will very clearly explain both mental strategies and written procedures, though not as early as the traditional math crowd would prefer.

I don’t know. Part of this certainly has to do with the sort of place where I teach. The kids are for the most part not poor, I’m not under state test pressure, and the kids don’t have grades. My goals are for kids to know their stuff and be prepared for future coursework, but I also want them to have fun, and I don’t feel as if those goals are in tension in my current situation. (At other places that I’ve taught, though, I have felt those sorts of tensions.)

I do think that it can be a big mistake to focus only on strategies, as I’ve seen kids left behind on their fact knowledge when I taught that way. I wrote at length about this in Teaching Rachel.

I’m sure other resources will come to mind and I’ll try to add them to this post. Feel free to drop your own favorite resources in the comments.

The absolute best way to practice flash cards with elementary students

I will show you my favorite way to ask kids to practice with flash cards.

But first, some logistical tips that I’ve picked up.

Tip #1: Everybody gets a hard plastic case.

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Tip #2: Everyone gets one and only one color of flashcards. I repeat, DO NOT LET YOUR KIDS MIX COLORS OF FLASHCARDS. CHAOS WILL ENSUE AND THEY WILL NEVER BE ABLE TO FIND THEIR CARDS IF THEY GET MIXED UP WITH SOMEONE ELSE’S DECK.

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I KNOW WHAT YOU’RE THINKING AND, YES, SOMETIMES KIDS WITH SAME-COLORED CARDS END UP PRACTICING NEAR EACH OTHER AND, YES, THEIR DECKS GET MIXED UP. IT’S HONESTLY NOT THAT BIG A DEAL, BUT I’LL DO WHAT I CAN TO PREVENT CONFUSION RIGHT UP TO THE POINT WHERE I’M TELLING NINE-YEAR OLDS THEY CAN’T PRACTICE WITH A FRIEND BECAUSE THEY HAVE SAME-COLORED FLASH CARDS.

Tip #3: If kids have a hard time with a card, let them write little helper problems at the bottom of a card. Put them in pencil so you can erase them when you don’t need them any longer.

Tip #4: Have kids make their own cards, but don’t have make solving all the problems a pre-condition for making all the cards. In other words just give them the answers with the problem. The whole point of this is to practice with feedback, so don’t be shy about giving out answers at first.

To illustrate, I gave out this sheet to my third graders:

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OK so that’s the logistical tips. Now, on to the best practice set-up with flash cards.

The thing to remember is that there are all sorts of problems involved with asking two kids to practice together, even though it’s very fun to practice with a friend.

Meaning suppose that you’re doing what I call forward practice, i.e. you’re looking at the problem.

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How do you make sure both kids get something out of that exercise? Inevitably one kid goes and yells out the answer in excitement before the other one has a chance to finish thinking. This I think can make kids feel less than their partners, mathematically, and also can make the activity a waste of their time.

So you tell everyone to make sure they each have a chance to raise a thumb or some sort of other check-in to make sure both partners are ready to check the other side, but these are third-graders we’re talking about and this isn’t something particularly easy for them to remember. So you remind them, again and again, and the practice starts to feel exhausting and not as much of a fun game any longer.

That’s an advantage to what I call backwards practice, which is looking at the ‘answer’ and then trying to think about what problem is on the other side. So here’s 48, what’s the problem? Jeopardy style.

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And this is better, because there are multiple answers and both partners can contribute…but honestly it’s got the same problems as forward practice when it’s done with partners.

Which brings me to the best way to practice with cards but also one FINAL logistical tip.

OK here it goes: one partner does forward practice, the other does backward practice with the same card, held between them.

Here is a picture illustrating the basic dynamic:

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And you probably don’t realize the best part about this, which is that IF I SHOUT OUT MY ANSWER IT DOES NOT TAKE AWAY MY PARTNER’S CHANCE TO THINK.

Here is that best part of this best way to practice, illustrated via dialogue.

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Card: Kid A’s side says 6 x 8, Kid B’s side says 48.

Kid A: I am an excellent Radiohead album. Also, 48.

Kid B: You are excellent. Also yes that is in fact what my side of the card says. Good work. Now, does your side say 12 x 4?

Kid A: No it does not.

Kid B: Hmm. Can I have a hint?

Kid A: You’re right that there’s multiplication. Also it has an 8.

Kid B: Oh, OK. How about 6 x 8?

Kid A: Now you are correct.

***

Tip #5: Have the kids write with pencil on their cards so that the numbers don’t bleed through to the other side of the notecard, thereby ruining the best way of practicing with flash cards.

(Though a few inventive children have found that if you insert a card into the translucent decks it obscures the backside while leaving your side visible. Children are genius.)

***

There are two other interesting ways to practice that I’ve come up with. I won’t spend much time explaining them because they don’t deserve it; they aren’t the best.

  • Place a bunch of cards out in front of view, and try to pick a few that get you as close to some target number (e.g. 100) as possible.
  • Pick the same three cards from two different decks (two different colors, please!). In one set place the problems facing up, with the other place the answers facing up. Try to match them.

But both of these require more set up or more clean up or more time than the very best way, which I’ve already detailed extensively above. That is all.

What I’ve Learned About Practicing Multiplication Facts

I. 

During this past school year, I started practicing math facts in a new way with my 3rd and 4th Graders. The name I came up with for the routine was “Forwards and Backwards Practice.”

Like all my classroom ideas, it was lazy and simple. I handed a piece of blank paper to each kid. I told everyone that we’d be doing an activity in two rounds, that they should write “Round 1” at the top of their papers. Then I wrote the “forwards” and “backwards” problems on the board.

The “forwards” problems were pretty familiar to my kids. Solve the equation; put a number in the blank to make the equation true:

4 x ___ = 28, 8 x 4 = ___, ____ x 7 = 42

The “backwards” questions were more open-ended. On the board, I simply wrote three numbers:

21; 42; 81

I explained that for these I wanted the kids to write as many multiplications as they could remember that equaled each number. Accurate “backwards” answers for 21 would be 3 x 7, 1 x 21, etc.

As kids were wrapping these questions up, I called attention back to the board. If there was a common mistake, this is when I mentioned it. I shared accurate answers to each question, emphasizing what I wanted to emphasize.

Then, I erased the board. I told kids that there would be a second round of questions in a minute that were very closely related. Take a minute, I said, and study the multiplication we just reviewed. Try to remember as much of these as you can. When a minute is up, you’ll flip your page over to the blank side for Round 2.

Here’s what I did, basically: I swapped the forwards and the backwards questions. The backwards questions were now forwards equations, and the forwards were now put in backwards form.

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My planning notebook.

 

That means that the corrections and practice that the kids got in Round 1 are relevant for Round 2. If a kid is just starting to practice 7 x 3, then they get a chance to study it and try to remember it for a problem that is coming right up, moments after they study.

That’s why I like this routine. It packs a pretty virtuous cycle into a fairly quick package:

  • Think about what you already know
  • Get some explicit instruction in response to your work
  • Study
  • Try to remember it

One thing I like about this routine is that it solves a problem I was having with other whole-group practice, which was some kids were finishing my practice much before others. I didn’t want to end the activity, but the quick finishers needed something to do. Backwards practice is something that sort of “naturally” differentiates. It’s end-goal is vague; kids interpret it according to their understanding of multiplication, so they each student tends to find appropriate math to work on, and my speed-demons don’t force me to call a quick end to the activity.

Depending on the group and their confidence, knowledge, etc., I might vary how closely the questions in Round 2 resemble the questions in Round 1. If kids are really at the beginning of their learning of multiplication, the Round 2 questions might very closely resemble the ones in Round 1. Or we might keep them all “forwards” practice, just knock out different numbers in the equation. Or change the direction (i.e. from 3 x 7 to 7 x 3).

II. 

I also use flashcards with my 3rd and 4th Graders.

When I first introduced them, I was very, very nervous. I tend to worry about the most anxious kids in my class, and I had two nervous wrecks in my 3rd Grade group. (One was receiving medical care for his stress.) How would they react to all this? They were already shutting down when I gave out worksheets. Flash cards would only be worse.

So, I introduce flashcards. I get each kid a little plastic decks and I get a ton of colorful index cards. (It turns out that you need both of these things to make this work, because otherwise kids lose their cards or mix them up with other decks. I tried to pull this off with envelopes and white flash cards last year and it was a total disaster.)

We slowly start filling out cards with multiplication (and addition) problems. I ask kids to practice, and I explain what practicing means, and I tell them what good practice looks like. (“None of this stuff where you’re shouting out answers while someone else is thinking. We don’t want to take away someone else’s chance to think.”) And then I give them a good chunk of time to start practicing.

Things looked good in class, but you never know for sure, so I asked kids at the end of class to write a bit about how they liked practicing math with their decks. I’m very interested in what one of my high-anxiety kids thinks, so I grab him at the end. What did you write, O? What were you thinking?

What he tells me is really interesting. He says that he really prefer the cards because they only show one problem at a time. When he sees a page with a ton of problems on it he gets overwhelmed, distracted, stressed out. But cards are significantly less stress for him.

The year goes on. There are a few groups that are getting a bit competitive when they practice, which I come to think is fine as long as I keep an eye on it. I do maintenance on their practice: be nice; you can write another problem as a “starter problem”; make sure everyone you’re practicing with has a chance to answer; you can do this by yourself; throw out a few cards that are too easy. I ask questions: are the cards too easy? are they too hard?

Are you enjoying this practice? I ask that often, because I’m sort of surprised by how much they’re enjoying themselves. But they are, really.

Flashcards are just great for practice. The answer is right there — if you get it wrong you get correction and a nudge in the right direction. (Math facts is the sort of thing that it really does help to get quick corrections on.)

There are other benefits too. Like O said, you only see one problem at a time. You can go fast, you can go slow. You can turn the cards over and do “backwards practice.” You can take the deck home and practice by yourself. You can quickly take it out if you finish an activity quickly — it can go on the menu.

One challenge I’ve had with flashcards is that some kids persist in using really inefficient strategies when practicing with their decks. This is because they are basically choosing how long to spend on each card in their decks. This is attenuated somewhat by kids practicing together but it’s something that I had to keep an eye on while they were practicing.

III.

When I wanted a bit more control over which fact families my students practiced, I used dice games:

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Roll a die for the top left box, then for the top right, then for the middle left, middle right, etc.

It’s another dumb, easy thing. The only problem here is that there are no corrections when kids are practicing. I had my students write down their results for this sort of practice, but I often couldn’t catch mistakes quickly enough to be useful for their practice.

IV. 

I want to help my students commit as many multiplication facts as they can to memory. I don’t want to feteshize math fact automaticity — some kids do OK without this knowledge — but it’s really useful knowledge for learning more math. Why wouldn’t I try to help my kids commit their math facts to memory?

What’s the best way to do this? Well, you need a theory as to how kids come to commit facts to memory. As I’ve written about before, my perspective is you learn what you practice. If you want to remember facts, you have to practice remembering them. And if you don’t practice remembering them — if you only ever practicing skip-counting to derive them — you’ll probably never come to memorize them.

This helps me navigate the world of multiplication practice, where controversy abounds.

Take, for example, speed practice. Daniel Willingham and Daniel Ansari recently wrote a post defending speed practice. I left a comment arguing that we needed to know why speed can help kids in their practice before we defend it:

In one study I read (about fluency software) I learned that students with learning disability did not improve their addition fluency through untimed practice. Why? Because during untimed practice, the students simply DERIVED the facts rather than trying to RECALL them. In other words, you’d see a lot of kids in front of screen counting out 3 + 9 with their fingers instead of trying to recall them from memory. The kids were already pretty good at using this strategy, and the untimed practice allowed them to keep doing what they were good at.

I see this in my own students too. It’s not so much that timed practice is helpful for learning directly, as much as it creates a context in which kids practice the things you’d like them to practice.

A solution is timed practice with immediate fact instruction. (You got 3 + 9 wrong? OK, 3 + 9 = 12. Try again.)

[…]
The worst case scenario is that teachers give kids a full worksheet of problems, and kids can’t directly recall ANY of them. Instead, kids work on using strategies to derive the facts. The teacher says to solve as many as you can, but the students can only correctly answer that many questions using direct recall — with strategies, there’s not enough time. Time pressure (along with the long list of problems) generates anxiety, which makes it harder still to answer problems correctly. None of this produces fact fluency.

Based on talking to colleagues and other math educators, this worst case scenario is in fact prevalent in US classrooms. These “Mad Minute” activities could be used appropriately, but they are instead often given to novices who are not prepared to draw on their mostly memorized facts for the activity. And, I think, this probably does generate feelings of helplessness and anxiety.

As a result of all this, when I think about fact practice I end up asking myself this question all the time: Will the kids be practicing derivation or recall? 

And here’s a fundamental follow-up: Kids can’t practice recall unless they are being prompted with the correct answers during the practice.

I really don’t like Mad Minute activities because they don’t prompt you with corrections or instruction in the fact during the activity. So you can’t really learn anything from the activity unless you’re “almost there.” Maybe it helps you practice pulling out the fact from memory, but it can’t help you learn that fact with automaticity without some sort of prompting during practice.

That’s why I like splitting up practice into two rounds, as I do during “forwards/backwards” practice. I get to give prompting/instruction in between the rounds, and then kids get a chance to practice with it during Round 2.

It’s also why I like practice with flashcards, especially if kids are reminded to try to figure out the answer as quickly as they can. (They basically do this anyway.) While I worried that this would be stressful for my kids, I’ve actually found the opposite. Flashcards, the way I use them in class, tend to be less stressful than other conventional practice activities (like long problem sets).

The absence of prompting/corrections is a downside of my dice practice, though it’s attenuated somewhat by the way the problems will reappear as kids cycle through the different boxes and repeat factors. Still, it’s a form of practice that probably would be better at helping kids have a chance to practice strategies rather than remembering.

I think it’s important to be thoughtful here. Math facts aren’t the be-all of school math, but they do make a difference for kids’ future learning.

The fundamental disagreement I have with a lot of people in math education is that I don’t think that practice using a strategy helps kids commit facts to memory. (Though I do believe that having efficient strategies does help kids commit facts to memory. Both knowing efficient strategies and recall practice are important for developing automaticity. I have citations for this. See also the Willingham/Ansari piece.)

And my fundamental displeasure about the debate is how rarely it gets into the classroom details. So, you’ve got a position on how multiplication should be taught? Does it fit on a slide? Do people take pictures of it with their phones during conferences? Tweet it, retweet it, like it?

That’s great, seriously, but let’s talk the nitty gritty. What are your activities? What does your class look like? What is it that you do?