Tips to help with learning times tables


Learning times tables at primary school age provides a sound foundation upon which more advanced maths skills can be built. Both teachers and parents agree that by the time a child is ready to start secondary school, it is useful to know multiplication facts to at least 10x10.

Many parents feel increasing pressure to teach their children times table facts at home to supplement their formal maths education and ensure they are well-prepared for SATs and other points of examination. Unfortunately the rote learning method by which most of us were taught lost credence during the nineties. These days chanting times tables out loud is increasingly frowned upon; we need to discover interesting - and ultimately, more successful - methods of helping out children learn.

All children learn differently, so in this post I've suggested lots of different ways you could help your child learn their times tables. Some techniques I've used with my own children, while others have been recommended by friends and family whose children respond better with alternative learning styles. 

What order should times tables be learned in?

During my youth, we learned our times tables in ascending order: 2,3,4 right through to twelve; that was just the way it was taught in my school. In adulthood, I quickly realised this way was unlikely to be the best approach for my own children: some tables are easier to learn than others, and aside from bolstering confidence, learning multiplication facts in a different order helps children recognise the patterns which emerge.

It's generally agreed that the 10, 5 and 2 times tables are the easiest to master, followed by 4 and 8, then 3 and 6 and 9 (though the nine times table can be mastered easily with a few little tricks I'll explain later). The 7 times table is arguably the most difficult to learn since it's patterns are less recognisable and is probably best left until last.

Children learn more multiplication facts than they may think!

When looking at a 10x10 number square, children can be baffled by the hundred facts they need to learn. They may not realise that half of the numbers in the grid are repeated: 2x4 is the same as 4x2, and 7x6 is the same as 6x7. Essentially, children only need learn half of the times table facts they believe they should.

Once the 1, 2, 5 and 10 times tables have been mastered, only 21 more facts remain. If your child has also mastered their 3 and 4 times tables, and is able to use the "finger trick" (see below) for their 9x table, only a minuscule 6 facts are left!

Most children learn the "easy" 1, 2, 5 and 10 times tables without much prompting, so explaining that only a few facts remain to be learned eases their trepidation at the otherwise daunting task.

The nine times table finger trick

Discovering that the nine times table (up to 9x10) can be produced by manipulating fingers was a revelation to me, and a trick I've passed on to many others for whom it has proven useful.

Hold your hands out in front of you, and (counting from left to right) hold down the digit which corresponds to the number you wish to multiply by nine.

For example, if you want to know the sum of 4x9 (or 9x4 for that matter), hold down the index finger of your left hand. The number of fingers to the left of the held-down digit correspond to the "tens" while those to the right are the "units". In this case, there are 3 before and 6 after, so our answer is 36. 

Holding down the index finger of the right hand corresponds to 7x9 with six to the left and three to the right, giving the sum of 63.

Counting in sixes using fingers

Here's another tip for quick "jump-counting", this time for sixes. Children will first need to know their five times table in order for this to work.

Using the same number of fingers as you wish to multiply by six, jump count in fives. Then go back to the first finger and add one each time. 

For example, to work out 5x6, count all five fingers on the left hand in fives (5. 10, 15, 20, 25) then go back and count in ones on those five fingers (26, 27, 28, 29...) to get the answer 30.

Both this and the finger trick for the nine-times table are useful when learning times tables, but should not be substituted for memorisation.

Play games to make times table learning fun

All children love playing games, making this an excellent tactic for learning through play.

Try using a deck of playing cards (with the picture cards removed). Place the cards face-down on the table, then pick up two at random and ask your child to multiply the numbers. If they guess right, they get to keep the cards, and the game ends when all the cards have been used. 

Dice are another useful device with which a similar game can be played. Roll two and ask your child to multiply the numbers. 

If you're a parent of a video-game enthusiast, try downloading the following apps and games:

Squeebles

This interactive game is available for iPad, iPhone/iTouch, Android and the Kindle fire. Developed by media company KeyStageFun, the objective is to rescue the cute Squeebles from the nasty maths monster by answering multiplication sums correctly.

Squeebles costs just 69p ($0.99 in the US) and is well worth the small cost!

Percy Parker (Sing your times tables)

Available as an app for the iPad as well as a music CD, Percy Parker is highly recommended by parents and teachers alike. The character "Percy" is a singing retired teacher whose catchy songs get children singing along without realising they are learning.

Timez Attack

By far this is Princess' favourite times table game as it seems much more like a premium video game than a cheap thrown together app! What's more, it's available for free for home users (though you may feel inclined to pay for the premium version which comes highly recommended on the forums I frequent).

The publishers of Timez Attack claim that with 30 minutes of playing over an eight week period, children can master all of their times tables and that their unique approach helps children retain the facts they have learned. We're yet to discover this yet, but of the three video-games I've mentioned in this post, Timez Attack looks to be the most promising.


Take time to learn the trickier facts

While the 2, 5 and 10 times tables may be relatively easy to master, other tables may take considerably longer to learn. 

If your child is a visual learner, try getting them to write down the facts or create flash cards (with the answer on the back) to make memorisation easier.

Over at Nodehill Maths, you can download and print a highly useful set of "table triangles" which feature the 21 facts children find the most problematic. Two of the corners feature the numbers to be multiplied, while the third includes the sum. 

Mnemonics can be handy for learning trickier sums. "I ate and ate until I was sick on the floor" represents 8x8=64, for example. To help learn the answer to 7x8 (often considered the trickiest multiplication fact), remember "5678": 56=7x8.

Practise practise practise!

Without regular, consistent practise, children can quickly forget the times tables they have learned. To ensure these facts are retained in their long-term memory, we need to help our children practise as much as possible, in many different ways.

Practising in real-life situations is very effective. When baking a batch of cupcakes, for example, the tray will likely have four rows across and three down; ask your child to work out how many there are in total. Similarly, when cooking ask "we're going to need eight slices of cucumber per person for this salad and there are five of us. How many slices will we need in total?".

Continue to play games with cards or dice, ask random times table questions or practise chanting on the school run. Eventually your child will be able to recall any fact from their times tables without hesitation, though it will take time to commit every single one to memory.

What do you think?

Have you found a technique which was particularly helpful for your children learning their times tables? Do you have any more recommendations for us to try?

Please feel free to leave your comments and suggestions below.

Photo credit: Andrew from Sydney, via Flickr