Is basic fact mastery a goal to achieve as an end in itself? Or is it a goal to achieve as a means to something else? In other words, why do we want kids to master basic arithmetic facts?

Adults don’t go through their day thinking, “Hmm – yes, do the laundry; go to the game Thursday night; 8 times 7 is 56; gotta get the oil changed next week; oh yes – 54 divided by 9 is 6…” If adults did do that, then basic fact mastery would be an end in itself.

But we adults don’t utilize basic math facts like that – we use them as a way to get other things accomplished. In my opinion, basic fact mastery is an extremely important goal – but is not an end in itself. Basic fact mastery is a goal to reach for as a means to other things, such as…

• adding up a series of numbers from a grocery trip or a card game;

• determining commissions on sales;

• figuring or estimating tax and tip on the purchase of a meal, a shirt, or a car;

• calculating the area or perimeter of a room or house for purposes of painting or wallpapering;

• shopping for items that involve discounts;

• estimating gas mileage and the cost of a trip.

In general then, basic fact mastery empowers a person to be more savvy, more alert, more on top of one’s dealings with the surrounding world.

So, if basic fact mastery is a means to an end, then our kids need experiences where they can practice basic math skills as a means to an end – as a way to achieve other goals! What are some of those experiences where kids can practice basic math facts as a means to other ends? Here are some:

• playing board games: think about the practice of basic addition in almost any board game involving two dice –Monopoly, Chutes & Ladders, Parcheesi, etc. Sometimes there is other math involved in these games, such as in Monopoly with the purchase price of a property and making change with the bank;

• playing card games: card games involving counting are great – like Cribbage and Rummy 500;

• making things: anything involving a tape measure (whether sewing or working with wood);

• making fun food stuff:

• participating in sports (keeping score): adding up in point totals in basketball from the number of 3-point field goals and/or 2-point field goals and/or 1-point free throws; keeping track in football the number of 6-point touchdowns and/or 3-point field goals and/or 2-point safeties; estimating batting average in baseball or softball.

Yes, there should be times when those same skills are practiced in isolation – just not all the time! Achieving basic fact mastery only through flash cards and drill sheets would be like learning to play piano by only playing scales and never getting to play lighthearted melodies, practice beautiful hymns, listen to excellent music, or lead a family sing-along at the piano. Mathematical games can provide the variety and motivation to engage the three key elements of memorization: repetition, repetition, and repetition. If you are not convinced, try putting this book down, and playing a few rounds of Chutes & Ladders or Cribbage or Parcheesi. You’ll see how much basic fact practice is actually used in just one game – and it’s fun.