Should primary school children be learning times tables by heart?

A great article discussing the pros and cons of timetables by rote

By Rachel Jackson, Primary Specialist at the National STEM Centre.

The new curriculum requires children to all memorise their times tables and has caused two leading mathematics experts to speak out.

Jo Boaler, a professor of mathematics education at Stanford University has spoken of how timed multiplication tests cause anxiety for many children, blocking their working memory and preventing the recall of mathematical facts. Children may decide that they can’t do mathematics because of the stress around timed tests.

However, Charlie Stripp, director of the National Centre for Excellence in the Teaching of Mathematics (NCETM), has countered this in his article, ‘It is wrong to tell children that they do not need to memorise their times tables’. He says that knowing your times tables is important to mathematical learning and understanding, and learning tables can be fun for children. He talks of how knowing their tables help children develop learning because cognitive space is then freed up to learn new mathematical ideas and apply mathematics to solve problems.

So, what are teachers supposed to make of these two very different pieces of advice from two mathematics specialists?

I agree with them both in part and this perhaps highlights the day-to-day experience of many teachers. Some children thrive on learning their times tables, others become stressed and anxious when put on the spot. One thing I have noticed in class is that children are held back from learning more complex procedures when they don’t know their times tables. I have also known children who have struggled with mathematics, learn their tables and gain kudos amongst their peers. They positively glowed with pride at being quicker than those they saw as the ‘more able’ mathematicians in the class during times tables games.

Maybe it’s how we present times tables challenges. To help those that become stressed about times tables we need to teach them in a fun and engaging way, rather than giving timed tests. Teachers work extremely hard to deliver lessons to accommodate different learning styles and strive to create games and tricks to build children’s confidence in learning times tables in a way that is appropriate for the children within their classes. The ways could include:

  • using counters, pictures, arrays
  • playing games like Fizz Buzz, Bingo etc.
  • listening and singing to times tables songs whilst children come and sit on the carpet
  • using doubling 2 times table to get the 4’s and doubling the 4’s to get the 8 times table and halving the 10 times table to get the 5 times table
  • applying the commutative law for working out the 7 times table
  • that trick on your fingers for learning the nine times table!

Here are some great resources, including many games that help children learn their times tables in a fun way. Please share any further ideas and resources you have by uploading them in our community area.

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