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More Results in Less Time: The One-Minute Drill That Works

By Michael Maloney
Printed in Practical Homeschooling #63, 2005.

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Michael Maloney


In order to become fluent with almost any concept, operation or set as facts, students often need a lot of practice. Practice almost always requires the time and attention of a monitor or coach. To promote independent practice, parents sometimes rely on flashcards, especially for learning concepts like arithmetic facts. Most flashcards are designed to be self-checking with the question on one side and the question and/or answer on the reverse side.

Flashcards tend to work reasonably well as a practice medium. The major problem is that you may not be able to find a commercially available set of the cards you need to practice a specific skill. You often have to create them. This can be time-consuming, but in many cases the learner can make his or her own set of flashcards.

Measuring Progress

Another issue is trying to determine when the student knows the flashcard materials well enough to move on. Some people set a level of 90 percent or 100 percent correct as the criterion for success on a set of flashcards. If learners are slow and deliberate, they may only flip a few cards and may answer those few absolutely perfectly. That does not mean that they have fluent knowledge of the entire set of information. They may only have perfect or slightly less than perfect understanding of a small portion of the information.

An alternative to this situation has been created by a group of educators who use a method known as Precision Teaching. In Precision Teaching, samples of learning are gathered for a specific period of time and the results are compared to a known standard. The standards are based on the performances of thousands or hundreds of thousands of other samples of performances on the same task provided by other learners of the same age, sex, race, or other identifying criterion. The method provides a means for direct comparison of any learner's current performance against an established standard. This permits easy decisions about where the learner is now, how far they currently are from the standard, and how fast they are moving towards the accepted standard. Results for each student on each of the topics under study are charted on a special graph that depicts the rate of growth of the skill being learned.

In the hands of Precision Teachers, flashcards became SAFMEDS, which stands for "Say All Facts 1 Minute Each Day (Shuffled)." This simple change converts your task as a homeschool teacher from helping your child arrive at some (undetermined) level of knowledge to a simple daily practice procedure for as many sets of facts as the student is currently learning.

The SAFMEDS procedure captures and records the daily number of facts or cards that the student can complete in a dedicated period of time, usually one minute. A child could have SAFMEDS in Geography (states and their capitals), French, Spanish and/or English (vocabulary), chemistry (formulas and symbols), physics (the elements of the periodic table), etc.

Having used this procedure with thousands of children over the past 25 years, we have made a few observations. Children, especially younger ones, cannot flip flashcards fast enough to reach high levels of performance. We expect students to reach a score of between 60 and 80 simple arithmetic facts per minute in order to be considered fluent. Most students have difficulty flipping more than 50 cards per minute. This limitation imposes an artificial ceiling on their performances, which is a direct result of their lack of dexterity and has little to do with their knowledge of the material under study.

Sometimes parents try to resolve this problem by flipping the flashcards for the child. This means that the child has to wait for the parent and can only answer questions as fast as the parent is flipping the cards. Again there is a ceiling effect on the student's performance. Only this time, it is imposed by the parent's skill at flipping cards. To eliminate this, shuffle the card deck and then lay the cards face up in rows on a table so that the child can point to or touch each card and say the answers. This procedure allows your child to move as quickly as his knowledge of the facts permits. There should be no fewer than sixty cards in the deck. Ideally there would be more than eighty.

See/Say versus Think/Say

When a child is first learning facts, I recommend beginning with the reverse side of the cards: the side which has both the question and its answer. The student sees the word and says the fact and its answer.

Once the learner is fluent with the See/Say Addition Facts at 60-80 facts per minute with no more than 2 errors, I then switch to the other side of the cards - the one that only has the question - so that he or she can see the question and think about the correct answer.

Using the See/Say response first lessens the likelihood of guessing. Once the student learns the facts he or she can stop looking at the answers. At that point children are ready to switch channels and do Think/Say facts.

Splitting SAFMEDS into Piles

As students work on their SAFMEDS cards, I encourage them to group the cards into piles. The first pile consists of those cards that the learner can do quickly and correctly. The second pile is made up of cards on which the student hesitates before answering. The third pile is made up of cards on which the student has made errors. I encourage the student to do some (See/Say) practice on the last two piles for a few minutes each day.

Determining Excellence

Each set of SAFMEDS has its own standard. The standard is determined by the amount of information on the cards. Students can generally say 200 words per minute. If you calculated the average number of words on the cards in each SAFMEDS deck, you can easily determine the number of cards the learner should complete in a one-minute period. You do this by dividing the average number of words on the cards into 200 words per minute, the rate at which human communication occurs naturally. If there is an average of ten words per card, the learner could complete 20 cards per minute.

Recording the results each day for each set of SAFMEDS is a quick and easy way to motivate the students. It is also a sure-fire method for determining whether or not the child is learning. A string of highly similar scores which are well below the standard tells us that the program is not working. Watching the learner and determining the cards which cause hesitations or errors will often solve this problem.

So for better management of the learning of factual information, convert your flashcards to SAFMEDS - and do them for a minute every day.

Why SAFMEDS Are Better than Flashcards

Because SAFMEDS have a stated degree of excellence in timed measurements, it is much easier to determine fluency. Sometimes reaching fluent levels of learning can be critical. On a personal note, as a sailor I once took a piloting course to learn more about navigation. The course had many new terms which I was expected to learn. I created SAFMEDS for each of the terms and learned them fluently. Fluency was determined by averaging the word count and determining how many cards I could flip until I reached the 200 words per minute speech criteria. Approximately one third of the final province-wide carefully monitored exam consisted of writing the definition of terms. I was able to complete that section in less than one third of the time of any other student who was taking the exam. That turned out to be critical as I made a navigation error in the second part of the exam which required almost an hour for me to track down and correct. I finished the exam with only minutes to spare. Had my knowledge of terms not been absolutely fluent, I would never have had the time to retrace my steps and correct the navigation error. As a result, I would have failed the course. In a live situation where time is also a factor, I may have been shipwrecked on the rocks before I found the error. I still need to practice the charting skills to fluent levels to solve this problem.

Some Sample Fluencies

Some of the more common uses of SAFMEDS are listed below.

  • See/Say Arithmetic Facts (single digit questions). In this situation, the student can see the question and the answer. 50-60 facts/min with 0-2 errors.

  • Think/Say Arithmetic Facts (single digit questions). In this method, the student sees only the question. 50-60 facts/min with 0-2 errors.

  • See/ Say Word Meanings. The average number of words written as answers to reach 200 words/minute (the speech rate of the student) with 0-2 errors.

  • See/Touch/Say Diagram Parts. E.g. muscles of the human body, parts of a microscope, etc. 60-80 items per minute with 0-2 errors. The student can see the part and its name.

  • Think/Touch/Say Diagram Parts. The student sees only the part and must say the part's name. 60-80 items per minute with 0-2 errors.


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