Every year, at the end of the year, there are one million* referrals for special education testing for students in 5th grade. All have the same referral question/concern: Johnny/Johnisha is behind academically and (insert negative prediction about middle school). The referral then becomes a mad dash to test the kid before the retention decision has to be made or they plunge into the perils of middle school.**

The concerns about these kids’ academics are valid. At one of my elementary schools, there were quite a few 5th grade students who did not know their basic math facts. A few students did not know the 2s times tables, nor the concept of even counting by twos, and meanwhile, the class was working on fractions. Incidentally, the issue I had with these particular surprise 5th grade referrals is that upon reviewing the cumulative folders, there were no discernable interventions attempted to address the students’ difficulties. So are they truly “disabled” or are they instructional casualties? Is it fair to call them special ed because we have not had the resources to help them learn their math facts? At one school, I tested four 5th graders and none qualified for services. While I love testing and it’s great to rule things out, like learning disabilities, I think this is where the RtI movement can really help.

But do you know what’s not fun? Trying to drill multiplication facts into students who have had years of negative experiences with learning multiplication facts.

My wonderful resource specialist at this school agreed to develop a mini-RtI program for these floundering 5th graders. But how could we make it interesting and new to these disengaged students? That’s right, hip hop.

We found this CD called Multiply THIS! and developed a 10-week program that the kids loved. The basic lesson plan goes something like this:

• Introduce the group and develop some group rules that involve prizes and M&Ms.*** Post group rules that you earn tickets for participating and being safe (or whatever rules apply for you). I find that that being safe, responsible, and respectful cover pretty much anything. Explain that the more they participate, the more tickets they can earn. At the end of each group session, there will be a drawing of the tickets and the winner will get a prize. This system saves money, because you only have to get one prize. It can be a pencil or a higher-value prize, like a copy of the CD. We gave each student M&Ms at the end of the group just for participating though. If we were working on our 2s, they got 2 M&Ms that day.

• Conduct some baseline of their multiplication fact fluency, using a timer and a sheet of random multiplication facts. We used “mad minutes” sheets and gave them one minute. As they were working, we gave them tickets with their names on them to keep them going.

• Teach the concept of skip-counting. Start with easy ones like the 2s, 5s, and 10s. So for the 2s, make a worksheet with several rows of numbers 1-12. Model for the student how to circle every other number starting at 2. Show them that if you can skip count, you can do multiplication. Then play the CD for the 2s rap (Twos, twos, I got a beat for you!) and have them circle the numbers 2, 4, 6, 8, as they rap them. If they sing along, or are circling, give them tickets with their names on it for the drawing.

• At the end of each session, draw a prize and give them the number of M&Ms for that day’s number.

• The next session, practice the skip counting worksheet again with the rap for the 2s and do a quick 2s worksheet or “mad minute” for data collection. Then introduce the next number that will be skip-counted. We did it in sequence, but in retrospect, it would be better to do the 5s and 10s next to really reinforce the skip-counting concept. So then give the students sheet of sequential numbers and then possibly a multiplications table where they can skip count by 5s with the rap, rewarding along the way for rapping or circling. They can also color it in or use highlighter if that’s more interesting.

• Continue with this process with the rest of the numbers.

• At the end, give the students the same assessment you did at the beginning with all the numbers, and gauge their progress. Of course, a true research design would have a control group and do some sort of a t-test for statistically significant differences, but unless you are able to defy time, that probably isn’t going to happen. Do measure their progress though and use it as instructional feedback for the teacher (e.g. Johnisha has the 6s down, but the 7s are not automatic). At minimum, be happy with the fact that they have that catchy “3’s 3’s break ’em Down if you please” burned into every layer of their brains for the rest of their lives. I know I do!

*What, me? Exaggerate? Never.

**I have a retention soap-box which I will bring out later and espouse research on how it is not an intervention.

***I know, I know, you’re supposed to give raisins or something healthy, but really, will a few M&Ms hurt anyone? Of course, they are manufactured in a plant that has peanuts so you have to rule out that allergy first. (Insert curmudgeon voice: *In MY day, we ate M&Ms without analyzing the ingredients first!*) *PTA presidents across the nation gasp*

Hi, Rebecca.

In a study using single-subject design, we taught kids with LD how to count by some numbers and how to use those counting skills in a strategy for solving multiplication problems (e.g., “‘4×7’ means ‘count by seven four times’; 0, 7, 14, 21, 28…so 4×7=28”). The results showed that the students had to have both the pre-skill of counting by and the strategy to solve problems. Importantly, when we taught them the strategy, the kids correctly applied it to (a) problems they hadn’t seen during training and (b) problems for which they knew the count-bys but not those for which they didn’t have the pre-skills. (Later, by the way, we documented how we could teach division in a matter of minutes, if the kids knew the count-bys.)

Lloyd, J., Saltzman, N. J., & Kauffman, J. M. (1981). Predictable generalization in academic learning as a result of preskills and strategy training.

Learning Disability Quarterly, 4, 203-216.

Thanks John for your comment. That language can definitely be infused into teaching kids how to skip count.

I think the lesson we both learned doing this the first time is that you cannot assume a kid knows what skip counting is and how it applies to multiplication. We assumed incorrectly that after the 2s, they would get the concept, but it was clear they didn’t apply the skip counting skill across numbers, until they really got the process.