You have been hired to teach a young newlywed how to cook. You decide to start with something fairly easy: French toast. When you arrive to teach the lesson, you discover that the young bride does not have eggs. Everything stops while she goes next door to borrow some. Bread, she tells you, she does have, but only one slice. Everything stops while she runs to the convenience store to buy bread. She has no cinnamon, so everything stops while she once again makes a trip to the same neighbor who loaned her the eggs.

You’ve been there a good forty-five minutes and you haven’t even started the actual lesson yet. Why? Because you had to keep stopping.

You can’t learn anything if you have to stop every few seconds to just get the basics. The basics have to already be there. The student who does not know his math facts has this type of problem. He is constantly having to back up, to pause and think. He can’t stay on track simply because . . . he keeps leaving the track! I cannot overemphasize this. Your child will have difficulty with math all his life if he does not master math facts.

So, what are math facts, and how can you ensure your child knows them? Math facts are those things you see on flashcards, where one side says “8+2” and the other side says “10.” Using them is easy; you simply hold the “question” side up and your child looks at it and provides the answer. The difficulty lies in mastering them, because mastering means knowing something as well as you know your own name.

To repeat: Your child must know each fact as well as he knows his own name. If you wake him up from a deep sleep and ask what 7 times 4 is, he will mumble “28.” That is mastery, and if you do not work with him until he reaches this point with every fact, he will forever have difficulty with math.

Once you realize the importance of total mastery of these facts, you must now help your child learn them. The first step is to buy or make flashcards. Start with addition. 

The second step is to determine which facts your child already knows. Hold the entire deck in one hand and take the top card and show it to your child. If he gives the answer to this question without thinking, then he has already mastered that particular fact and you can put that card down. If he gives the wrong answer, or pauses, even for a second, to think, then place that card at the back of the deck.

After you have gone through the entire deck this way, you should have a smaller deck in your hand. You do not have to work with the cards that you have laid down. It is now time for the third step, in which your child memorizes the facts he has not yet learned.

From the “he doesn’t know these” deck, choose five cards. Put them in one hand, and take the top card and show the question side to your child. He will either pause or give the wrong answer. You then give the right answer—with the question, not just the answer. So you will say “8+2 is 10.” Make him repeat this sentence about five or six times, and then put the card behind the other four cards and go through the same procedure with the next card. Do about six cycles like this with only these five cards. Do not drag this lesson on and on. Ten or fifteen minutes of flashcard drills a day is fine.

The next day, go over the five cards from the previous day. Perhaps your child will instantly give the answer to four of them. These four cards can then be moved to the “he knows these” stack, and the fifth flashcard becomes the first card of the new set of five. Every day you should practice with five cards until all the addition facts are mastered. 

Subtraction is next, and you use the same procedure. You will find the going a little easier, because subtraction is the opposite of addition and he already knows the addition facts. Once subtraction is mastered, you are ready to tackle the multiplication facts.