Use It or Lose it! Practical Keys to Building Fluency


The first three posts on this blog I have been enumerating on why I believe fluency is important, especially in the younger grades. Now I wanted to get into more details on how I improved fluency in my classes. However, if we are going to be intentional about fluency, we need to know if the activity/work we are doing will actually be helpful– otherwise we will be wasting our time and our kids time.


I also believe it is important to understand that fluency is built over time. It is a process of brain-building that should be integrated throughout your teaching over a year.


Something interesting I found in my research for Addition Blocks was the actual physiology behind building fluency; that the brain will build new synaptic pathways when building new associations (ie, 6 x 8 = 48, or 1 + 2 + 3 + 4 = 10), and these pathways are strengthened through repetition. So, the idea is to get the brain into creating new pathways by moving them away from inefficient methods (counting on fingers to add, skip-counting for multiplication, etc) to moving into long-term memory.


The elements of a good fluency-building exercise:


 + Repetition

Repetition of common facts or procedures (i.e. solving equations, long division). This critical for strengthening those neural pathways. The saying, “Use it or lose it” is correct!

+ Time Constraints

Time constraints force the student way from slow, inefficient methods. Counting on fingers or skip-counting for multiplication just takes too long. Students who spend too much mental energy on simple addition or multiplication will not have the energy to spend on multi-step or more process-oriented problems.

+ Immediate (or near-immediate) feedback

To build correct pathways in their brain, students need to know they have a correct answer! If half the time the student answers 7×8=56 and the other half of the time 7×8 = 54, and never find out if they are correct until the next day, how will they every strengthen those pathways?

+ Allow for failure

Just as it is important to know you get a correct answer, it is just as important to know when you get an incorrect answer! How may times has a coach said (and as a former coach myself, agree with the statement) “We learned more from this loss…”. Knowing (immediately) that an answer is incorrect will weaken and effectively ‘kill’ incorrect associations in the brain.

+ Gradual Increases in Difficulty

Moving too fast in difficulty will discourage children from moving forward. A person does not learn to ski and then try a double-black diamond slope! However, never moving off basic facts will never get that child to move forward in their learning.

I also did use speed tests in my classroom for many years. Speed tests do meet many of these elements, but I believe we need to do them strategically to get good results. In the next post, I will discuss how I used speed tests in my classroom.

4 thoughts on “Use It or Lose it! Practical Keys to Building Fluency

  1. Great post! I totally agree with the need for quick and accurate math fluency that has meaning in students’ lives. It wasn’t until I was in a college math course that I understood all of the connections in math. It was then that I really began to apply mathematical concepts and fluency to my own life, because it finally had meaning in my life.

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