By Scott Sterling
Fluency in the core subject areas is not much different than fluency in foreign language classes; it is the ability to readily recall new knowledge with very little struggle. It falls under what we call procedural knowledge. Fluency is also a great place for homework to make a mark.
The classic example of fluency learning is a student memorizing their multiplication tables. The practice itself might not be intellectually rigorous, but that knowledge will greatly serve the student when they are working in more rigorous, related pursuits.
Here are the things to keep in mind when assigning fluency-building homework.
The goal is high completion rates
Homework should be structured in such a way that guarantees a high completion rate among the students. After all, if they aren’t completing the work, it really does no good to assign it.
This often leads back to an intimidation factor. Giving a student a mountain of multiplication facts to memorize will lead to avoidance or, at least, dread. Will they remember the facts? Eventually. But the inevitable number of students dragging their feet will be behind the others.
Amount is important
Procedural knowledge practice has to be given in smaller chunks than declarative knowledge work. The facts become available faster when practicing something that should become automatic. Meanwhile, the time it takes to move knowledge from short term to long-term memory stays the same.
The conventional wisdom is for 10 minutes of homework to be assigned per grade level (10 for 1st grade, 20 for 2nd, and so on). This is even more important when building fluency.
The students (and parents) should know the purpose
As students work towards fluency, each of them should know why they are learning the facts or skills they are. It is much harder to build fluency when there is no greater purpose that the student can see. The overall learning goal given to the students should be the overarching product of the lesson or unit, not the simple idea of building fluency. In other words, “students will know their multiplication tables by heart” is not a learning goal.
Homework that builds fluency is a great place for parents to get involved in their child’s schoolwork because they tend to be tasks that are easy to follow along with. Any parent can help their child keep track of a spelling list or math facts.
Instruct parents to help their children make a game out of this type of practice. They can time their progress and help them beat their best time, or compete against them in learning the content themselves. This is a golden opportunity to engage both students and parents.
That being said, a student should always be able to complete their homework by themselves. That means giving them the background and foundational knowledge they need during class as well as the tools they will need at home. Proper fluency practice strategies should be modeled in the classroom early and often.
Address the new skill immediately
Students need their work recognized as soon as possible. That doesn’t mean handing out prizes for homework completion, but rather making sure that the skills they practiced are used again as soon as possible. It helps students know that what they practiced is important and usable, as well as helps further move that knowledge into long-term memory.