How to Help Kids Catch Up on Math Facts After Pandemic Learning Losses

As teachers return to the classroom, they’re facing a double challenge this fall: how to present new material appropriate to their grade level and close learning gaps that occurred during the 2020-2021 school year.

According to a July 2021 McKinsey report, K-12 students fell, on average, five months behind in math and four months behind in reading by the end of the 2020-2021 school year:

“The pandemic widened preexisting opportunity and achievement gaps, hitting historically disadvantaged students hardest. In math, students in majority Black schools ended the year with six months of unfinished learning, students in low-income schools with seven. High schoolers have become more likely to drop out of school, and high school seniors, especially those from low-income families, are less likely to go on to postsecondary education. And the crisis had an impact on not just academics but also the broader health and well-being of students, with more than 35 percent of parents very or extremely concerned about their children’s mental health.”

McKinsey & Company, “COVID-19 and education: The lingering effects of unfinished learning,” July 27, 2021

Some school districts are focusing on remediation—taking kids back and redoing everything they’ve missed. Proponents of remediation reason that there’s no way to know how much or little students learned over the past two school years that were heavily disrupted by COVID. Better to assume kids missed out on key learning and cover it all again.

For kids who show signs of being seriously behind their classmates, some schools are holding students back and literally having them redo their last grade. In fact, 18 states have laws that mandate children repeat their last grade if their test scores fail to meet state standards.

Many parents are unsure how much learning loss their kids experienced during the pandemic, and they feel powerless to protect them from having to repeat the previous year, according to a Politico article.

Holding kids back can have a serious effect on their self-esteem, however, so opponents of remediation are using a different approach: acceleration.

Reversing Learning Setbacks

Instead of holding kids back or spending another year trying to make up lost ground, acceleration keeps students doing grade-level work while targeting specific skill gaps. “The best approach, they argue, is to keep kids at grade level but give them specific help when they face an obstacle due to something they missed, a process sometimes called targeted remediation or ‘just in time’ learning,” according to the msn.com news article.

In this same article, third-graders from Gregory Heights Elementary, in Burien, Washington, were learning double-digit multiplication, but some of the students didn’t yet have their single-digit multiplication facts down. Rather than holding them back or putting them in a remedial class, teachers figured out what their specific challenges were. One teacher discovered, for instance, that an individual was simply having trouble multiplying sixes and sevens. Instead of making her relearn all of her times tables, she simply focused on helping her student learn these specific math facts.

According to Dan Finkel, founder and director of Math for Love, trying to cram math facts is the least effective way to teach a child how to multiply. “If we can help students approach math with a sense of playfulness and curiosity, we’ll find those gaps are far easier to fill in,” says Finkel in an article in Seattle’s Child

Story- and song-based learning make memorizing math facts fun and engaging for kids. Online Times Alive, for instance, pairs stories and songs with math facts so students can master times tables the fun way.

Times Posters Download
Art designed by Val Chadwick Bagley.

By turning numbers into characters and building them into stories, kids retain math facts at a much higher rate than by using rote memorization. An independently evaluated study involving 756 students, 11 counties, and 18 schools showed significant improvement (24% higher math scores) after using Times Tables the Fun Way.

Learning how to multiply is one of the most foundational skills every student needs to learn. With an effective, fun method for learning times tables, third graders and above will be able to close any skill gap they may have experienced during the past two school years that were disrupted by the pandemic.

Try Online Times Alive with your classroom for a fun and easy way to get your students on track with their math facts. Signup now and start your free trial!

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