Why Learning your multiplication times tables off by heart is rubbish! >> Absolute Rubbish!

Why Learning your multiplication times tables off by heart is rubbish! >> Absolute Rubbish!

Guest blogger: @simonmlewis

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I think that learning tables off by heart is rubbish. When I say this, it is usually met with general disagreement and in some cases, complete contempt. Typical responses included:

  • There is no other/better way to teach tables
  • Learning tables off by heart did me no harm
  • Call me old fashioned but…

So  I tried an experiment with a group of primary school teachers. If they thought learning tables off by heart as such a good thing, I challenged them to learn the following sentences off by heart.

Fred Davidson lives in Aaron Zion Avenue
Greg Fredson lives in Aaron Clare Avenue
Isaac Davidson lives in Aaron Clare Avenue
Fred Davidson works in Bill Davidson Avenue
Greg Fredson works in David Bill Avenue
Isaac Davidson works in Clare Fredericks Avenue

It was interesting to see how many people accepted the challenge and the responses of the teachers that tried it and failed to learn them off by heart was the following:

  • I got muddled / scrambled / confused
  • My head got exhausted
  • I had no motivation / interest to learn them
  • I expected them to be easy to learn but they weren’t
  • They weren’t important to me
  • It was frustrating
  • I’m too busy

It was also interesting that many teachers who were in disagreement with me would not do the challenge as they didn’t see the relevance of learning a load of sentences off by heart. In fact the majority of the dissenters would not even attempt to take part!

Of the ones that did, some teachers recorded ways they tried to learn the sentences.  Some said they tried looking for patterns in the sentences. Others made a story up (e.g. similar surnames became part of a family) and finally others grouped similar names together to try and find patterns, etc.

So, what was the point of learning these seemingly random sentences? Before the reveal, I’d like to compare how learning tables is very similar to having to learn those sentences off by heart.

  1. When you give children tables, many of them will experience feelings like those expressed by respondents, being muddled, confused, seeing no point, no motivation, etc.
  2. Perhaps the majority of teachers are good at learning things off by heart. However, perhaps most people are not good at learning things off by heart.
  3. The six sentences below have complete relevance to learning tables. In fact, the sentences below represent 6 number facts. They seemed meaningless to many because they have appeared in a new way. A child comes across tables initially as something new too.
  4. Every word below is also a real word and you can explain what every word means. Putting them together, however, they don’t seem to have any pattern. Likewise, every number in a tables fact is also known to a child but put them together and they don’t seem to make sense or be very interesting. The reason some of you weren’t bothered learning the sentences off is the same reason a child wouldn’t either.

Here’s how the sentences below are, in fact, tables facts.

  • Any of the names represent a number. E.g. Aaron=1, Bill=2, Clare=3 and so on. Z words represent zero.
  • Lives = Plus
  • Works = Multiplied by
  • Avenue = Equals

So to translate:

Fred Davidson lives in Aaron Zion Avenue (6 + 4 = 10)
Greg Fredson lives in Aaron Clare Avenue (7 + 6 = 13)
Isaac Davidson lives in Aaron Clare Avenue (9 + 4 = 13)
Fred Davidson works in Bill Davidson Avenue (6 x 4 = 24)
Greg Fredson works in David Bill Avenue (7 x 6 = 42)
Isaac Davidson works in Clare Fredericks Avenue (9 x 4 = 36)

As far as I would be concerned, all the responses in this discussion represented exactly how a child feels when given a list of tables to learn. Just because I represented my tables in words doesn’t mean they should have been any more difficult.

The people who looked for patterns, made relations and grouped similar sentences were all using strategies to help them learn. If you can give your pupils strategies like that, e.g. David Fredson also lives in Aaron Zion Avenue (commutative property), you’ll see the benefits straight away.

My conclusion to this is that we need to accept that teaching strategies is far more beneficial than simply learning tables off by heart. No doubt, some will still disagree and I’d be interested to see your reasons, to which I’d be glad to respond.

Simon Lewis is a primary school principal in Carlow, Ireland. He runs the blog, Anseo.net, which gives advice and opinions on many aspects of Irish primary education. He works with trainee teachers in ICT and mathematics for a teacher training college and gives talks, courses and lectures around the country on all aspects of ICT in primary education. He has also written a number of books and articles for magazines and newspapers.

If you enjoyed using the resource above then make sure to check out the games and tricks available to help develop, practice and learn times tables skills.

13 comments on “Why Learning your multiplication times tables off by heart is rubbish! >> Absolute Rubbish!
  1. Ian Lynch says:

    Why do you assume very young children think like adults? How adults respond to a task is not necessarily how young children respond. The research they conducted for Sesame Street showed that what adults thought would appeal to the target age group was wrong. They were actually more engaged by repetition associated with learning by heart – eg the Count. Go in any playground and hear kids chanting stuff they have learnt by heart. They actually do it quite naturally and enjoy it. Adults on the other hand don’t so they transfer that prejudice to children. Teaching a 4 year old something by repetition is very different from teaching a 14 year old or a 24 year old. Of course how you get these different age groups to recall stuff will vary. Asking a 4 year old to learn it by reading is just daft. Routine rhyming games for example would be a much sounder strategy.

  2. Mark Ritchings says:

    I enjoyed your blog post but I’m still not convinced. Are you against students eventually having quick recall of certain facts or are you against particular methods of achieving this? I don’t see how quick recall of any potentially useful information could ever be a bad thing but I certainly accept that some methods of achieving this may be better than other methods.

    • magicalmaths says:

      Will pass the message on to the guest blogger!

    • Simon Lewis says:

      Thanks for your comment. I’m not at all against quick recall of tables but I’m against the method in which it seems to be taught (or not taught!) I think children need strategies to learn the tables and once they get them, it’s about increasing their efficiency. Only then would drill and practice be good, in my opinion.

  3. Ian Lynch says:

    Against it even if its done so the children are demonstrably enjoying it? Most young children learn language by imitation before they understand what they are saying. Too much applying adult thinking to the way children think methinks.

    Fred Davidson lives in Aaron Zion Avenue

    six plus four equals ten

    Hardly comparing like with like linguistically. And a child would be taught the words related to the numerals and how to sequence them before learning the number bonds and tables. The address thing seems like an exercise in confirmation bias rather than a fair scientific comparison.

  4. Patrice says:

    I agree with the sentiment of this article. I think we should teach for understanding and get children to appreciate the method of multiplication rather than just memorising the tables.

    • Mark says:

      Absolutely! Teaching for understanding is vital for kids to build both knowledge and understanding in numeracy.
      Learning and developing strategies is important, but without sufficient maths knowledge, this becomes increasingly difficult – strategies and knowledge go hand-in-hand, both helping to develop the other.
      Having said that, each student/person is different, and we all learn in different ways. If Kid A finds this method beneficial – and, vitally, they understand the why and how of the sums/equations – then why not use it? If it doesn’t work for Kid B, then there is no reason to use it. As teachers, we need to know each of our students, and what works for them.

  5. peppi wilson says:

    oh hurrah, some sense. Can I please send my kids to you? Actually, my daughter (10) has just about learned her tables now, thanks mostly to her international school teachers who worked on strategies and games, with plenty of INTERESTING repetition, using tables in every way you could think. My 7 year old, however, having come straight from play-based learning kindergarten overseas, to year 3 in the UK, has already gone from “maths is fun” to “I don’t see why I’d ever use it”, “it’s boring”, and particularly when it comes to times tables, “can’t, won’t, don’t see the point”.

    I am struggling. I wish they’d play games with it at school so I could support his learning. Trying to introduce games at home witout support at school is hard. Homework such as,”learn your 3 and 4 times tables for homework” is unhelpful for unmotivated, “this is too hard, why would I bother? kids”


  6. peppi wilson says:

    ps, learning by repetition /rote could also be helpful if it was incorporated into the daily routine and made fun.

  7. Samina says:

    I completely agree with your views in this article and have seen the results of poor teaching when children are told to rote learn the times tables without making any connections or drawing out links etc. Whereas good teaching would always help children use strategies to work out efficiently their 2 times, 9 times or 5 times any number etc. Children love to identify and recognise patterns. They then use them to develop connections and this gives them a fair opportunity as well as a security to take risks independently.

  8. Andrew Bennett says:

    Analogy rubbish.
    A better analogy is reading fluency. Once we learn to break the code of words we are able to read with greater speed and accuracy. Readers with fluency at 30% slower than age appropriate standard have poor comprehension.
    Students without reflex tables recall find it difficult to factorse and complete increasingly complex maths processes. Working memory limits capacity.

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