Teach Times Tables Without Apologies

Teach times tables to children in grades K-6: this is arguably one of the most important jobs a K-6 teacher has.

Why Teach Times Tables? Surely Calculators Make Memorization Redundant?

This sounds a little plausible, but I encourage you to stop and imagine this scenario: first, you have to imagine that you’re a child, around 10 years old. You haven’t had the experiences that your future adult self will have. You’ve been told by teachers that you don’t have to learn math facts by heart. You have a calculator in your desk, and you are encouraged to use it.

Now, picture this: you are working out the perimeter of a 6 by 8 rectangle using the formula “P = 2x(L + W)”.

Imagine This: You are a Child Whose Teachers Did Not Teach Times Tables

You remember you should add the length and width first, but you don’t know what six plus eight equals, since you never learned the addition facts by heart either. You look around in your desk and find the calculator, switch it on, look at the question again, press “8”, “+”, “6”, “=” and see “14” in the display. “What does that mean?” you think. Oh yes, that’s what “L + W” equals. Somehow you figure out the next step is to multiply 2 by the number you just found. You pick up the calculator, press “2”, “x”, then ask “What do I times this by?”.

You have forgotten the answer and you didn’t write it down, so you start again: “8”, “+”, “6”, “=”. This time you take note of the answer, “14”. You look back at the formula again, and press “2”, “x”, recall the previous answer again, “1”, “4”, “=”, and see the display shows “28”. You quickly write “28” in the space for the answer and move on to the next question. Oh look, it’s another perimeter question – it will be quicker this time, because you know the sequence of steps you have to take.

This is what happens if no-one takes the time to teach times tables. Notice that not only does this imaginary child take much longer to complete this simple question than it would have been if tables were memorized, the child is repeatedly interrupted in working through the question to carry out mechanical actions, mostly the pressing of calculator buttons, with little or no thought of why he or she is carrying out the process in the first place.

I promise you this: from today onward, I will not apologize for expecting students to memorize the times tables.

I’ve had enough. Students who don’t know the multiplication facts by heart will not achieve much success, if any, in their future math studies. So why don’t we do more to get our students to memorize facts?

Teach Times Tables: A True But Sad Story

In the video: The experience I had recently watching Year 5 kids trying to do a multiplication test without knowing the times tables illustrated this perfectly for me.

Students simply had no idea of the times tables, and so most of them resorted to drawing arrays of dots and then counting the dots from 1. Of course, this was much too slow, and in addition students frequently made mistakes.

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13 Replies to “Teach Times Tables Without Apologies”

  1. Thanks Peter, I totally agree! I have been telling the students in my class for some time that knowing their number facts makes so many other math topics easier! We have been using your resources for sometime as homework tasks and have found it quite successful. When students ask if they can use a calculator for problem solving I usually answer ‘yes, when you can tell me what you’re going to ask it to do’. I explain that it will only do what it’s told so they need to give it clear instructions. They will need to know how to use one reliably but the basics are not negotiable. Thanks

    1. Thanks, Vicki, I appreciate the comment.

      I love your comment about calculators; the more we can help kids to make sensible decisions, instead of lazy ones, regarding digital devices, the better.

  2. 100% agree on number fact knowledge, Pete. As a Speech Pathologist working in a secondary school, I see daily the lack of knowledge of times tables and that of automaticity of these facts – leading to kids getting further and further behind. Without this base knowledge, kids are unable to free up valuable working memory space to apply these facts to the problem solving and higher order thinking aspects of maths. Thanks for your passion – I had my Year 5 son listen too, so he knows why I get him doing your exercises and maths squares!!!

  3. Totally agree. As a secondary teacher I need students to be able to recognise patterns, factors, squares etc. Students are amazed that I can recognise these. It is difficult to make them understand that I am not working these out each time. I know them because I know my times tables. Much of maths is easier with this knowledge.

  4. I couldn’t agree more. Fact learning was not a priority in our Math Programme. We emphasised problem-solving, and as time went by, we began to realise that the standard of our problem-solving tasks were dropping. Our pupils were spending far too much time trying to calculate the basic facts, which they should have at their fingertips,needed to assist them when manipulating a given problem-solving task. We introduced your workbooks and this has proven to be very successful and the pupils are coping much better with more challenging tasks because they have this prior knowledge of the basic facts at their fingertips.

    1. Thanks, Lou! I’m glad to hear that our resources have helped your students.

      Where do you teach, if you don’t mind telling me?

  5. This was an excellent blog Peter. I am 100% with you on this. As a numeracy specialist dealing with this problem almost daily. We need to return to these basics urgently.

    1. Thanks, Caroline!

      I also feel the urgency very acutely. A generation of kids is falling behind, and it will take them much longer to catch up when they are adults, than it would to fix this problem now while they’re still young.

  6. Good to hear your thoughts and advocacy for the different aspect of Math. The opportunity for professional reflection is not always available to me so you fill the gap well with these blogs

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