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A sign of the times (tables)

We all agree that learning our times tables is the backbone of most maths teaching but how do we engage pupils to actually know them. Josh Wretham has plenty of advice for us.

Image result for times tables memes
From June 2020, all Year 4 children will sit a mandatory times table test or MTC (multiplication tables check).  The STA states,
“The check aims to support pupils to master multiplication skills, which are essential for future success in mathematics. It will help to identify pupils who have not yet mastered this mathematical concept, so additional support can be provided.”

If you haven’t done so already, I urge you to have a look at the link above but I have tried to pick out some key points below:

  •  The rationale behind the test is for teachers to pick up on children who do not know their tables so they can provide extra support.
  • Results will not be published at school level nor will they used by Ofsted.
  • As I understand it, the test will be administered online and will involve pupils answering 25 questions in 5 minutes.
  • Nick Gibb has compared this to the phonics screening that already takes place in schools.

While I know the idea of further testing in Primary Schools is one that will always divide opinion, I’m sure we can all agree recall of times tables is an invaluable skill in maths.  In my experience and opinion, children who are fluent with their tables are more confident picking up new ideas in maths, enjoy maths more due to this fluency and are proud of the fact they know their tables!  Teaching upper school ideas like long division, ratio and anything to do with fractions is much easier for children who are confident and secure with their tables.

The thing that has really interested me recently is how do we actually teach tables?  I’m sure some teachers dream of walking up and down corridors of schools hearing classes chanting tables in perfect harmony, but how useful is this?  Many times table resources focus on the testing and practice of tables rather than teaching.

When I was at school, I was lucky enough to have times tables posters on my walls, the tapes playing in the car and a weekly test at school to see if you were learning your tables at home.  During the week we would chant tables as a class and it would be obvious which children couldn’t keep up.  It is clear to me now that my actual learning of tables was taking place at home rather than at school.  At school, I was being tested; not taught.
Image result for times tables memes
As we know, some children have difficulty retaining information and to expect those children to retain 144 different calculations and then recall them in a random order, at speed is a little challenging to say the least.  When questioning certain children we know they may need a little longer than some, to think of their answer and yet we expect them to recall multiplication facts in an instant.

On the flip side, I have met children who know their tables inside out through rote learning at home but have a very limited understanding of number due to this and then applying their tables to anything beyond a times table test is challenging.

This is something I have given a lot of thought to lately and tried to change in my own teaching.  I’ve made time in my week this year for the formal teaching of times tables through a variety of activities.  The children in my class are all aware of their target times table but the basic format I’ve worked from is this:


As a group we shade in all the multiples of the times table we’re working on, on a hundred square.
Recently I looked at the 6 times table with a group and they quickly picked out physical patterns on the square to start with and as they went through could predict multiples using the L shape they noticed.  They also realised that the pattern of ones digits went 6, 2, 8, 4, 0, which led on to the discussion of how we could spot if a number was a multiple of 6.  This conversation and opportunity for children to practice their reasoning skills was invaluable and I was pleasantly surprised to see them pick up things I hadn’t noticed.
The point of this has been to give children an alternative to rote learning.  To look at actual strategies rather than “just learn it.”  We work through as a group solving the green ones first and then use those to help us solve the oranges, followed by blues and then finally reds.  Nothing ground breaking, but if children are confident doubling and partitioning  then this reminds them of what multiplication is and gives them a deeper understanding when it comes to calculations beyond 12 x 12.  The colours are more for my benefit but I do think associating a calculation with a colour can help with memory for the rote learners!

Throughout the week I revisit this slide and try to rub off the answers as a group become more confident.  This is also a great excuse to add this video in, an all time fave of mine.


Twinkl has some brilliant resources for practising tables and I know many people use the fantastic Times Tables Rock stars for this as well.  There are lots of great resources and games out there for the practising part of this that I’m sure you’re all aware of.


The times table funpack, which can be downloaded from TES has some great problem solving activities around specific times tables, that I have been setting my class to show they have a deeper understanding of their tables.  I have still been testing my class weekly on their designated table.  Its a part of the week they look forward to and its great for them to ‘show off’ when they know a table well.  It allows me to track which children need support with which tables and reminds me to be mindful of those children who maybe need a bit longer to recall.  I’m aware there are children out there who have no problem with rote learning tables and that’s great.  I would rather my class had a set of strategies for multiplication than rote learn their tables.

I’ve found this year, by giving tables a higher profile in class, its something my children enjoy and get excited about.  Its a strength of theirs as a class and they’re proud of that which I think is cool.

There is no doubt that learning tables is a valuable skill but I think we need to remember teaching not testing is more important with tables and for some children, speed isn’t everything!

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The author

Josh is entering his 5th year of being a teacher. He will be teaching in Year 5 but has previously taught in Year 6 and Year 4. In his school in Surrey, Josh leads maths and his year team. He trained on the Surrey South Farnham SCITT in 2013 and has also been a mentor on this scheme.

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