Finding Our Way in Fluency – A School’s Journey to Strengthen Math Fluency Instruction

A personal story of how educators built their knowledge of mathematics fluency from the ground up, and identified creative ways to help their students master fluency expectations

Our public school, Sorgho Elementary, is set in the rural portion of Daviess County, Kentucky. We have a student enrollment P-5 of 489 students. We are a Title 1 school and participate in free in-classroom breakfast with a free- and reduced-lunch population of about 60%.

About five years ago, educators at Sorgho decided to adopt the Bridges and Number Corner curriculum. The implementation begin in kindergarten. The following year, first grade began implementation and so on until the 2015-2016 year, when in December, both fourth and fifth grades began implementing the Bridges program mid-year. The reasoning behind this process was to ease the students into the new conceptually rigorous curriculum and avoid creating large gaps in student understanding and learning by shifting quickly to the more challenging program without first addressing unfinished learning. This year’s (2016-2017) fourth graders were the first set of students to have Bridges since Kindergarten – but every year they had Bridges, it was the teacher’s first year of implementation.

Identifying the Problem

We are a Lighthouse School through Stephen Covey’s Leader in Me program. An element of Leader in Me is having Wildly Important Goals (WIGs) for students, classrooms, and schools. It was decided that one of our school-wide WIGs would focus on fluency. What we soon discovered is that as a school (and partially as a district) we did not really understand what true math fluency was—how to practice, track, and assess fluency. Because we’d worked with the Common Core State Standards for several years, we were aware of the grade-level fluency requirements but did not have a collective understanding of how to help our students develop fluency skills through classroom activities. Third-grade teacher Catie Warren questioned,”Why do we have as a math goal in 3rd, 4th, and 5th grades to master multiplication? If we make it a goal in 3rd grade, why are we still not mastered in 4th and even 5th?” This opened all of our eyes to a big problem within our school-wide math instruction – we did not know how to focus productively on math fluency.

Taking Action to Improve our Fluency Instruction

Taking Stock; Making a Plan

To better meet the fluency requirements of our standards, we began with a yearlong search, discovery, and planning project to:

  1. Identify the fluency requirements at each grade level
  2. Articulate what we were doing within the classroom (and what more we could do) to build this fluency
  3. Agree on how could we track progress

We knew that old-fashioned timed tests were NOT the answer. However, ditching these “fall back” assessments proved a little more difficult than expected. Parents want to see fluency results; students want a feeling of validation, and teachers need a way to track student progress whether it be with making ten, addition facts, or multiplication facts. Studies, such as those related in Jo Boaler’s Mathematical Mindsets, showed time tests that consisted of 25-50 problems on a page with a one-minute time limit were not building fluency but actually increasing student anxiety instead.

Getting Creative with Fluency Practice Activities

With the help of classroom teachers, we started to develop fluency menu boards to send home with students. The menu board consisted of optional ways for students and parents to practice grade-level-appropriate fluency work at home. Choices consisted of old-fashioned flashcards (but with Mr. Zimba’s twist of only focusing on facts still to be mastered), computer programs, board games, and dice games just to name a few. Instead of tracking the progress on timed test, we started tracking the participation of fluency practice believing that more intentional practice would bring stronger fluency results. The menu boards helped give students the fluency practice, in a more fun and engaging way (not just the boring flash cards over and over again) PLUS, the menu boards helped parents see other ways their child can learn and practice math! This was definitely a step in the right direction, getting students to practice fluency in various ways at school and at home!

We were then given the great opportunity to work with Student Achievement Partners on the 3rd grade Fluency Project. We utilized the fluency Sprint packets provided through SAP (available here) and pulled from the Engage NY curriculum. We wanted a starting data point so we began by giving one of the last Sprints so that we could see growth by the end of the five-week project when we would give this Sprint again. Four times a week for no more than eight minutes a day, students participated in these Sprints while teachers tracked student motivation toward fluency and students tracked their Sprint A and B results trying to “better themselves” from A to B. Students were very motivated to improve. 100% of the students improved from the beginning to the end of the five-week project.

The best thing for me to see, as a teacher, was to see that students who had struggled with timed practice in the past were successful with these Sprints! I didn’t see students as anxious and feeling like they HAD to finish every problem. The sprints were different each day and students only had to work to beat their own score and improve each week in their own time. It also encouraged the top performers to continue to improve and beat their own times! With the changing sprint each day, there was no guessing or memorizing; I knew these students were fluent because they had to solve different problems every day. Many students were practicing fluency each day to get better and improve their scores. They were asking me for ways to study and get better. After giving Sprints, I could see where students were struggling and review a quick strategy on how to solve that problem.

Looking Ahead

We now have a better understanding of fluency within grade levels, and we recognize that we still have growing and learning to do in order to continue to build fluency development. We are setting a new plan of how to best utilize these fluency packets – when to begin, what denotes mastery, and how to bridge the gaps that students have at each grade level. We know we still have work to do, but with the help of our fluency project and better understanding our grade-level standards, we believe we are on the right path to fluency proficiency.

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About the Author: Amanda Davis started teaching in August 2002. She has taught 3rd, 4th, and 5th grades, and became the Instructional Coach at Sorgho in July 2016.

About the Author: Catie Warren started teaching in August 2010 at Sorgho Elementary. Catie has taught 1st and 3rd grades. Starting in the 2017-2018 school year she will be teaching 5th grade.