Fluency and Fast Are Not Synonymous in Math


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The term fluency is often tossed around in discussions about mathematics. In fact, many math curriculums even have a fluency component within each lesson. Although fluency is an important component of mathematics, it is still widely misunderstood. Consider these two pervasive misconceptions about what it means to be fluent in mathematics:

  1. Fluency translates into being fast at math.
  2. Fluency means memorizing math facts and multiplication tables.

If these are truly misconceptions, then what is fluency? According to Sherry Parrish, fluency is “knowing how a number can be composed and decomposed and using that information to be flexible and efficient with solving problems” (Parrish, 2014). Parrish’s definition aligns with the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics’s definition of computational fluency:

Computational fluency refers to having efficient and accurate methods for computing. Students exhibit computational fluency when they demonstrate flexibility in the computational methods they choose, understand and can explain these methods, and produce accurate answers efficiently. The computational methods that a student uses should be based on mathematical ideas that the student understands well, including the structure of the base-ten number system, properties of multiplication and division, and number relationships (Principles and Standards for School Mathematics, 2000).

Parrish’s definition is quite different from what is often seen in math classrooms around the United States. Many of us can probably recall having to take a timed math-facts test, and some of us also remember the anxiety that these timed tests caused. Current research indicates that memorization of facts and timed math-facts tests are responsible for the onset of math anxiety in one-third of students today (Boaler, 2015). Yet many teachers still believe that being “good at math” means students need to rely on rote memorization.

Here are three suggestions to help you enhance fluency practice in your classroom:

  1. Instead of giving students a timed math test, spend that time doing a number talk with your students. Talking about numbers and computation builds number sense and fluency.
  2. Give students opportunities to work with math facts that are shown with different representations. Seeing numbers and math facts represented as arrays, dot cards, dominoes, and so on helps students develop flexibility with numbers.
  3. Teach partner games that provide opportunities to build fluency by working with numbers that are represented in different ways.



Boaler, J. (2015). Fluency without fear: Research evidence on the best ways to learn math facts. Retrieved from https://www.youcubed.org/fluency-without-fear/

Parrish, S. (2014). Number talks: Helping children build mental math and computation strategies, grades K–5. Sausalito, CA: Math Solutions.






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