Using Dice for a Basic Math Facts Practice Game

by Tina Blue
September 18, 2005

          I can't emphasize enough he importance of drill for helping children to master their basic math facts in the early grade-school years.  Children need to study with flash cards and they need to do innumerable math worksheets, until they can answer simple addition, subtraction, multiplication, and division problems instantly, without counting and without having to stop to think about them. 

          Sure, for most kids this is drudgery, but it is necessary, inescapable drudgery.

          Nevertheless, there are some things you can do to lessen the drudgery of memorizing and practicing math facts.

          Here is a little "game" I play with the younger children that I tutor in math.

          I get several sets of dice, each pair a different color. I assign each color to a type of math problem: addition, subtraction, multiplication and division. Then, I roll a pair of dice (picking up the colors in an unpredictable order) and the child has to answer the problem the numbers represent.

          Say, for example, that we use purple dice for addition, pink for subtraction, red for multiplication, and blue for division. If I roll the purple dice and the numbers that turn up are 3 and 6, the child must quickly give the sum of those numbers.  If I use the pink dice and 3 and 6 turn up, then the child must subtract the lower number from the higher one. If the child has already mastered basic multiplication and division, then he will multiply or divide the two numbers that turn up on the red or blue dice.

          We start slowly at first, but as the child become more adept at performing these basic operations, I begin to speed up the dice rolls, so that he has little time to study the number of dots on the dice, because I want my students to learn to recognize the numerical patterns on the dice instantly, without pausing to count or to consider. 

          The game has limitations, of course. It only works with the lower numbers, since the highest number on a regular die is 6. But you can get the dice used for role-playing games like Dungeons and Dragons if you want to work with the higher numbers, since role-playing dice go up to die-12. You could, for example, roll a d-12 and a d-4 together, or even two d-12, to get higher numbers.

          As the child becomes more adept at responding rapidly, you could even begin to roll more than two dice at a time. For example, I might roll three dice, and the child's task would be to add two numbers together, and then add the third number to the sum of the first two numbers. This is a good way for him to practice keeping track of multiple numbers and adding or subtracting (or multiplying or dividing) them quickly in his head.

          A more demanding game would be to roll three dice and let the child add the two higher numbers together and then subtract the lowest number from that sum.  You can use even more dice to create more difficult problems as the child increases his mastery.

          To keep the game interesting, I always give my students a chance to challenge me, too. After a child has practiced for a while with the dice, I let him take a break and roll the dice for me for a change. Of course, it's just a trick. (I am full of tricks!)  Even while challenging me, the child is going to be looking at the numbers he rolls and checking my answers against the ones he comes up with.

          Heh heh heh--he will be practicing the drill even while playing the role of teacher.

          I am not suggesting that this dice game should replace practice with flash cards or worksheets--just that it should be used as an additional form of practice. And after the child has spent some time with flashcards and worksheets, the switch to rolling the dice really does feel like a game.

          Besides, even the teacher gets bored with flashcards and worksheets after a while, and playing with dice is a welcome break for her, too.