It’s heartbreaking when a student not only doesn’t know a fact like 8 + 4, but also has no strategy for figuring it out.  Especially when that student is a 5th grader.  How do you know they have no strategy?  Because you ask them what 8 + 4 equals and it’s a good 10 seconds before they come up with an answer.  No counting on fingers, no head bob indicting they are counting on, just ten agonizing seconds.  But even in 5th grade it’s not too late to help students learn their basic facts. Enter strategy-based instruction.

You may have heard of strategy-based fact instruction, but what exactly does it mean?  It boils down to helping kids become flexible thinkers.  Helping them to use what they know to figure out what they don’t know.  It gives them a place to start.  Here are some examples of strategies for basic addition facts.

  1. Counting on.  Yes, this is a strategy.  It’s not the most efficient, but it’s better than counting all.  For example, one way to find 8 + 4 is to count 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8 and then 9, 10, 11, 12.  So counting on from 8 (8, 9, 10, 11, 12) is definitely more efficient. And it is a strategy to know that when solving 4 + 8, I can count on starting at the bigger number.  Take my 5th grader in the introduction–it doesn’t take 10 seconds to count 8, 9, 10, 11, 12, so it seems like this student didn’t even have the most basic strategy.
  2. Make a ten.  This is a powerful strategy for students who understand composing and decomposing numbers.  Basically, you split one addend to make a ten out of the other addend.  For example, to solve 8 + 4, I would split the 4 into 2 + 2, use 2 to make a 10 with the 8, and then add the other two.  So…
    8 + 4 = 8 + 2 + 2
  3. Use doubles.  Kiddos learn their doubles (2 + 2, 3 + 3, 4 + 4, etc.) quite easily.  Knowing their doubles can help with near-doubles facts, like 6 + 7.  I’ve watched a student stumped by 6 + 7 and asked them: What’s 6 + 6?  Almost automatically they will say 12.  So what is 6 + 7?  The light bulb goes off and they answer 13 with a smile.  It’s like you just taught them a magic trick!
  4. Think +10 for +9.  Those 9s are such difficult facts!  But, adding 10 to a number is easy.  So when I see 9 + 6, I can think 10 + 6 and then just subtract 1.
So you might be thinking, don’t we want students to memorize their facts?  Absolutely–automaticity with facts is essential.  Teaching strategies leads to automaticity along with a deeper understanding of numbers.  Timed fact tests and flash cards don’t help a student who doesn’t know how to figure out 8 + 4.
Have I peaked your curiosity?  Wondering how you can get started? You might want to check out this blog post for more about the Make a Ten strategy and this post for the Using Doubles.  Both posts include freebie workstations for practice. The book Mastering the Basic Math Facts in Addition and Subtraction: Strategies, Activities, and Interventions to Move Students Beyond Memorization  is a great phenomenal resource.  It includes literature links, games, and mini-lessons. 

I love to hear your success stories with strategy-based fact instruction!  Be sure to leave a comment. 🙂


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