Add It Up

Come September many students will be shopping for more than pencils and notebooks. As technology grows, so does demand, even down to colorful calculators tailor-made for inquisitive little fingers, like Educational Insight's See and Solve, which displays whole problems in both vertical and horizontal orientation. There are many educational products out there, and with expectations high and class time at a premium, parents, students, and teachers want to make every moment a teachable one.

In this article I'll be looking at math products that help increase those moments by giving teachers tools to target the specific needs of their students. The programs operate on different platforms: Tom Synder's FasttMath, an intervention program designed to increase math fact fluency in ten minutes a day and Key Curriculum Press's TinkerPlots, an inquiry-based data analysis and graphing program for grades 4-8, run on both Mac and PC. Valiant Technology's Math Amigo, a kinesthetic approach to math, is designed for handheld computers, but it also runs on AlphaSmart's Dana, desktop and laptop computers, and on tablet PCs.


(Tom Snyder Productions)

For many students learning math facts is a chore, and often some sort of intervention is needed. Teachers often don't have the time to go one-on-one with struggling students. Enter Tom Snyder's FasttMath. This comprehensive math fluency program combines assessment, adaptive instruction, and detailed progress reports to help develop automatic recall of basic facts with the goal of moving newly acquired facts from working memory into long-term memory. Assessment guides instruction through customized ten-minute daily sessions. These targeted lessons and practice in math facts focus on what students need to work on most, interspersing new facts with those already known.

After finishing a Fast Fact Challenge or receiving instruction in new facts, students can sharpen recall and reinforce basic number concepts and computation strategies by incorporating a practice game into their daily assignments. Fun, colorful, and engaging games help increase fluency by providing a heavy concentration on the focus facts. Six practice games with sets of 70 problems each continuously present more difficult problems. Kids will love this as the can beat their previous high scores. Each game varies in theme (Helicopter Hogs, Mud Monkeys, Fast Cars, Bubble Buster, Electra-ball, and Rocketman) and direction movement of the facts (horizontal/vertical or static in the case of Electra-ball, in which balls are zapped to keep them from plunging into holes). Like scores calculated during fact instruction, scores are based on speed, accuracy, and difficulty. High scores are displayed on a game gallery screen, and students are required to complete one game as part of the daily session.

FastMath's engaging games help reinforce basic number concepts and computation strategies.

One of FasttMath's strongest features is its robust tracking ability. Performance reports can be pulled at the student, class, school, and district level, and teachers can choose from a variety of student management screens updated after each lesson with customized messages tracking individual progress. It also offers customized standards correlation reports.

Teachers can then reinforce strategies with included customized pencil and paper worksheets that not only provide number writing practice but also give much-needed breaks from the computer. A comprehensive Teacher's Guide is included, as is the Fact Fluency and Foundations Guide providing extra support in number sense instruction.


(Valiant Technology)

MathAmigo takes technology and puts it directly in the palms of its users. Aimed at saving educators time, the program lets teachers load the program onto their PCs where they can organize students, plan lessons, assess students' work, and produce reports by using MathAmigo Manager. The Manager also gives teachers a preview of how the selected activity will look on a handheld and lets them create ability groups and set parameters such as number of questions and time allowed for each student. They then hot sync student names and activities to portable devices and exercise results back to the host PC for assessment and future planning. The color-coded assessment reports make it easier for teachers to spot weakness at a glance and plan accordingly.

MathAmigo has nearly 2,000 activities — more are on the way — with lessons ranging from basic number concepts, patterns, and operations to geometry and prealgebra (geometry and prealgebra are still under construction). It is important to note that MathAmigo is a work in progress that is rapidly growing and developing. Free upgrades are available while the program is under construction, and Valiant offers one free hour of Web training.

MathAmigo adjusts questions to fit the student's performance level.

On the average, each grade has 130 core activities, each subdivided into four or five stages. Teachers can also create their own lessons, and they can assign them to individuals or groups like the included lessons. As students record their answers, MathAmigo automatically adjusts the difficulty of the questions based on performance. Lessons are scored instantly, providing immediate feedback. Children get a "try again" message when inputting the incorrect answer, and "teacher alerts" appear to let the teacher know if particular students need extra attention. Questions are generated randomly, so even if students repeat a lesson, the questions will be different.

Although designed for classrooms with enough handhelds — preferably in color — to go around and covering about 90 percent of the K-8 curriculum, MathAmigo may be difficult for young minds to understand what they are being asked to do. Additionally, little hands may have trouble using a stylus, which could be a problem because many of the tasks (for example, number lines and what number comes next) are geared toward young learners. Teachers can always buy keyboards, but that could get expensive. Those who master the handheld will fare better experimenting with MathAmigo's many activities, and teachers will appreciate that all the lessons are in line with NCTM standards. It's an engaging program, and all learners will enjoy having their own (or shared) handheld and the sense of being in control of their activities and progress. The program is Windows only, but Valiant hopes to have a version for the Web, networked computers, and other operating systems by late fall.

MathAmigo has a lot going for it, but the program is full of grammatical errors, such as "Please click of Ok button to restart your computer" or using upload when the correct word is uploaded. The Web site also has grammatical as well as programming errors such as getting a screen full of code when clicking "Click here for sample." With the push for proper English language skills and the continuing need to improve students' literacy skills, programs should be grammatically correct.

Tinker Plots

(Key Curriculum Press)

TinkerPlots takes students to a higher level of critical thinking as it helps them see trends and patterns in data, and then shows them how to use that data to make graphs representing their findings. Kids are naturally inquisitive, and a simple question like, "Is your backpack too heavy for you?" is all it takes to get the data collectors on their way. (That and the short TinkerPlots Basics and Adding Data movies accessed from the Help menu.) Three more movies are available when students are ready for more advanced analysis. The program comes with about 40 ready-to-analyze data sets on topics from history to sports. Although those are fun to experiment with, the real fun is in building a set from your own criteria.

Students start by asking a question and then filling out attributes on a Data Card. For example, in the backpack question, some attributes may be name, age, grade, gender, bodyweight, and backpack weight. Values (specific student's body weight), Units (pounds), and Formulas (percent) are also entered on the Data Cards. Each entry, called a case, is on a separate card, and students can arrow through them. Students can also create a table if they want to view more than one case at a time. They then click on an attribute from the Data Card, drag its icon object into the document, and the objects arrange themselves using the chosen attributes. A student might start with gender and add grade level and pack weight. All data is color coded and stored in bins created by dragging an icon left or right. After they graph it one way, they can scramble all the objects and plot them another way.

Another plus is TinkerPlots' ability to import data from Microsoft's Excel. It is also student driven and can be customized by using drawing tools or creating text. Because students control the complexity of the plots, the depth of analysis, and even the size of the object icons, the software, though geared for grades 4-8, is suitable for grades below or above the targeted audience. That is because TinkerPlots is designed to make students think outside the book. Students predict, question, research, collaborate, analyze, and problem solve, all by rearranging a series of dots and watching patterns unfold. The program also comes with data sets, blackline activity masters, and detailed activity notes.

Jamie Keller is a teacher in Berkeley, Calif.

Math Resources

Product: FasttMath

Publisher: Tom Snyder Productions;

Platform: Mac/Win

Price and Skill Level: $250 per computer; 2+

Notable Features:

  • English/Spanish
  • Continuously adaptive, customized course of study for each student, based on assessment
  • Twelve detailed performance and usage reports at the student, class, grade, and school levels
  • Fact Fluency Foundation Guide, Comprehensive Teacher's Guide, and customized worksheets included
  • Choice of two fact ranges: 0-9 or 0-12
  • Customized standards correlation reports


  • Fluency-based intervention program aligned to standards
  • Targeted instruction in numbers and operations, basic math facts, and computational fluency
  • Fun and easy to use games
  • High level of customization


  • For kids who want more practice, it can be used only 10 minutes a day

The Bottom Line:

  • Great for teachers who want a fun, efficient, and engaging 10-minute-a-day intervention or math fluency drill program

Product: MathAmigo

Publisher: Valiant Technology;

Platform: Windows/Palm

Price and Skill Level: Different pricing packages available; 1-8

Notable Features:

  • Nearly 2,000 activities
  • Teachers download activities from host PC to handhelds
  • Automatically adjusts difficulty of questions based on performance
  • Lessons scored instantly, providing immediate feedback
  • Teachers get alerts if students need extra help
  • Questions are generated randomly, so even if students repeat a lesson, the questions will be different


  • Teachers have high degree of customization options
  • Assessment reports are color coded making it easier for teachers to spot weakness at a glance and plan accordingly
  • Lessons meet NCTM standards
  • Great for kinesthetic learners


  • Grammatical errors in text, on Web site
  • Some content still a work-in-progress
  • Young hands may have trouble using the stylus
  • Not all districts will have sufficient handhelds for class

The Bottom Line:

  • Great assessment and planning tool for teachers if schools have the budget and equipment

Product: TinkerPlots

Publisher: Key Curriculum Press

Platform: Mac/Win

Price and Skill Level: Different pricing packages available; 4-8

Notable Features:

  • TinkerPlots Basics and Adding Data movies help; iData can be imported from Excel
  • About 40 ready-to-analyze data sets on topics from history to sports are included
  • High degree of customization
  • Students can use included data sets or create their own
  • When changing data, representations and calculations update automatically
  • Students can download data from Internet, copy and paste it, or enter it by hand


  • Inquiry-based curriculum
  • Promotes higher-level thinking
  • Comes with questions to get students started
  • Teachers and students can post data on the Online Resource Center


  • Learning curve could be harder for more advanced analysis

The Bottom Line:

  • A rewarding inquiry-based program fueled by students' curiosity
  • Students have a high degree of control in organizing, charting, and reporting their data and analysis