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How can I help my child learn multiplication tables? A parent in Hong Kong worries that their home practice is ineffective

Knowing multiplication tables off by heart is essential for a child to develop good mental arithmetic, but not all brains retain information easily. Luckily there are lots of effective – and fun – ways that parents can help at home

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 28 March, 2018, 7:34am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 28 March, 2018, 7:34am

My Year Four son finds it really hard to learn his times tables, a Hong Kong parent writes. We help him practise at home, but he never does well in his tests at school. He gets upset and says the teacher goes too fast, then he loses confidence even more. What should we do?

Many parents experience frustrations when trying to help their children learn the multiplication tables. It can be very challenging, especially if a child has the type of brain that does not retain facts or information easily, even after repeated practice.

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The educational focus these days is more directed towards acquiring skills and engaging in critical thinking rather than simply learning facts. Many pupils, therefore, find repetitive tasks and rote learning relatively boring as they have grown up with a more stimulating learning process.

There is no standardised way of teaching times tables. Methodologies vary from child-centred approaches to more didactic rote learning. However it is done, it has remained a vital part of the curriculum for good reason. When the recall becomes automatic, it speeds up a child’s mental and written maths enormously, taking away the stress of having to make calculations before applying results to solving problems.

I have spoken with parents who never grasped the logic behind learning their times tables at school, and feel that their resulting inability to do basic multiplication along with a general incompetence with mental arithmetic has plagued them all through their lives. They mention, for example, instances such as difficulties in working out restaurant tips and converting money into foreign currency on holiday.

Basic multiplication facts need practising and reinforcing over and over again. Unfortunately, for most children there is no quick fix. Encourage regular practise for five or 10 minutes a day. Try to be creative and vary your approach. Test the facts in numerical order and then mix things up to help your son’s confidence in recalling each one quickly. Also, make up simple multiplication problems to help him get used to applying his knowledge. For example: five dogs, how many legs? Seven cats, how many ears? Make it fun!

Pointing out everyday events where your son uses his tables will help him understand the reasons for learning them

There are times tables CDs still available to buy that you can play at home or in the car that set the number facts to music or songs that are easy to remember. A quick internet search reveals a plethora of useful resources. Colourful posters are available where answers can be covered with strips of paper.

Use timers to measure progress and give small rewards if a previous record is beaten. Number squares, with numbers from one to a hundred, are also a good visual support because they can be used to show the times tables number patterns clearly. Pointing out everyday events where your son uses his tables will help him understand the reasons for learning them and may help him to be more persistent.

It is not only important for children to know the basic tables, but to understand the concept of multiplication and how it relates to the other mathematical operations – especially division. For example, if 3 x 7 = 21 that means 21 ÷ 3 = 7 and 21 ÷ 7 = 3.

Repeated addition is another important concept: 3 x 7 is the same as 7 + 7 + 7. Teachers may let students choose to represent their understanding using figures, diagrams or words, depending on their preferred learning style.

Education ministers in Britain are cracking down on the teaching of multiplication skills. When tested, not all pupils were sufficiently proficient and too many young people leave school without ever knowing these basic number facts properly. Increasingly, policymakers are stipulating that every child must learn their times tables up to 12 x 12 by age nine and will face a short online test. This is part of a wider back-to-basics “maths mastery” approach widely practised in China and Singapore.

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Young children have extremely receptive and absorbent minds. What goes in tends to stay there for good. Perhaps proof of this is that many adults can still recite nursery rhymes from when they were very young.

Some argue that rote learning or repetitive practise, often considered old-fashioned, is an effective way of learning tables. Many adults can recall chanting them in unison at school and still remember them even if other aspects of maths have long since been forgotten.

Julie McGuire is a former Hong Kong primary-school teacher