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The essentials of teaching basic facts in primary school

It may seem old school, but fluency in basic facts in primary school is a crucial skill to progress further with mathematics. Fluency goes beyond memorising the times tables – it involves understanding and applying mathematics.
The essentials of teaching basic facts in primary school

In today’s day and age – with calculators and computers – do children really need basic facts in primary school?

The answer is: Yes, they do!

This article touches on the essentials of basic facts in primary school – what are basic facts, why are basic facts important, and how to teach them.

What are basic facts in mathematics?

Basic facts (or maths facts and basic number facts) are the calculations using the four basic maths operations of numbers, generally up to 10. The four basic maths operations are addition, subtraction, multiplication and division.

When students become fluent, they are able to recall the basic facts of the four operations accurately and effortlessly. Basic facts fluency is understanding maths concepts and applying maths strategies flexibly. Maths fact automaticity comes when a student masters these two pieces.

Why are basic facts important?

Quite simply a lack of fluency in basic facts hinders a child’s subsequent progression in problem-solving, algebra and high-order maths concepts.

When children develop automaticity in basic facts, they “free up” their working memory and can use it for learning new maths concepts and skills.

Additionally, basic facts are the building blocks for higher-level math concepts. As students progress through primary school, these concepts are easier to understand once children have a good handle on basic facts.

On the other hand, students who do not understand basic facts will spend more time doing longer, more complicated maths problems. They are more likely to get confused in their problem-solving. As a consequence, they risk not completing tasks and falling further behind.

It is easy to see how this has a snowball effect. Maths anxiety starts when primary students fall behind and cannot keep up with their peers. By having a solid foundation in basic facts, students are not only prepared to learn higher-level maths. They are also confident that they can do so.

To help students avoid maths-related anxiety, primary teachers should supply their students with resources to support their numeracy skills.

How to teach basic facts?

Firstly, primary students need to make sense of numbers and maths operations – addition, subtraction, multiplication and division. Once they learn to understand what these mean, they can begin the process of memorising and recalling basic facts.

  1. Conceptual learning – Where students make sense of counting, numbers and maths operations. Using objects and models is an effective way to help students understand numbers and maths operations.
  2. Reasoning strategies – Here the strategies (like counting on and doubles) are taught. Emphasis should be on making connections between operations. Students must be given opportunities to explain what strategies they used and why.
  3. Mastery and memorisation – This last stage is simply about increasing a student’s quick recall. Students should be given varied and daily opportunities to practice.

It is worth noting that while the ultimate aim of teaching basic facts is to get students to memorise and recall facts, the first two stages are the most critical. These develop what Jo Boaler, a mathematics education professor at Stanford University, calls “number sense.”

Number sense is knowing the basic facts, and using numbers in different ways and situations. This teaches students to use numbers flexibly instead of relying on distant memories of times tables.

For example, when asked to solve 7 x 8, someone with number sense could work it out as 7 x 7 is 49, then add 7 to make 56. Or, they may work out 7 x 10, then subtract two 7’s (70 – 14) to get 56.

Take the Bother out of Basic Facts

Get help teaching basic facts in primary school

Essential Resources has many mathematic resources that support the learning of basic facts.

  • For students, our resources include a variety of basic fact worksheets and activities to challenge them in different ways. Take the Bother Out of Basic Facts has addition and subtraction worksheets, picture puzzles and maths mazes.  
  • Moving Forward with Basic Facts contains revision and assessment sheets to monitor students’ progress. It also has practical tips for primary school teachers, including how to scaffold the learning of basic facts.
  • Thirdly, Number Counts: Basic Facts is part of a series that supports quality teaching of number knowledge and skills. Each book is carefully aligned with development and the curriculum. 
Moving Forward with Basic Facts

“Each page clearly identifies the learning intentions covered through the activities. Each activity is designed to help develop numeracy skills in the students.”

Basic facts are the foundation to support further progression in maths. Today this goes beyond memorising times tables – it involves understanding concepts and applying strategies. Essential Resources workbooks supplement the learning of maths concepts. Students are given opportunities to apply their knowledge and develop number sense.

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