Bruno Reddy, formerly the founding Head of Maths at King Solomon Academy and founder of Times Tables Rock Stars. Times Tables Rock Stars is a subscription-based school service to boost times tables recall speed in primary and secondary schools. More than 250,000 pupils from nearly 2,000 schools around the world are part of the programme.
With the recent news that every pupil in England will be tested on their times tables before leaving primary school, we are seeing an increased focus on pupils reaching the expected standard in maths. It’s a sad truth that many year 7s around the country don’t know their times tables off by heart. By not having this basic building block, problem-solving later on in maths is always going to be light on solving and big on problems.
Will Emeny did an analysis of GCSE maths and found that nearly 60% of the maths concepts studied up to year 11 have a foundation in multiplication and division. With a quick recall of the times tables, pupils can more easily access the workings, concepts and relationships in the maths that sits on top. Without it, secondary schools face the costly situation of year 11s who still need to master the basics.
That was a situation I didn’t want to face, so in 2010, I set out to crack the times tables nut with my year 7 classes. Fast-forward to 2015 and, without any year 11 maths intervention, King Solomon Academy achieved some of the highest maths results for a state-funded school with a comprehensive intake.
Mastering the times tables in year 7 was certainly a contributory factor to the pupils’ success (95% C+, 82% B+, 55% A+ in maths), not least because it kick-started an enjoyment and empowerment over maths that most pupils had never experienced before.
Strategies for teaching the tables
There are many ways to remember the times tables. Amongst all the sound approaches, you’ll find shortcuts and tricks, but these don’t do it for me at all. They don’t lead to install recall of facts and they completely bypass any level of understanding of the times tables.
I’ve been taking a three-pronged approach that develops the pathways in the brain that lead to understanding and recall – in short, the three prongs are building a foundation of the concepts with physical objects, making interconnections within and across times tables and short, regular practice.
Using multilink cubes, Numicon tiles, tokens or something similar, I show pupils how times tables are made of groups, e.g. 1 group of 4, 2 groups of 4, 3 groups of 4, etc.
This is a valuable process regardless of their age. Whether they’re learning for the first time at age 5 or learning all over again at age 15, the physical grouping of the objects creates a foundation for the next stage, recognising the interconnections between the multiplication facts.
Number facts are very much connected and the good news is that if you know one of them you can work out most of the others if you understand how the connections work.
To highlight this to the pupils I would show them how, for example:
- 2 groups of 4 can be doubled to give 4 groups of 4 and doubled again to give 8 groups of 4;
- 10 groups of 8 can be halved to give 5 groups of 8;
- 6 groups of 9 plus one more group gives 7 groups of 9.
Being able to navigate from one multiplication fact to another is a crucial element of mastering them. Once pupils start to familiarise themselves with how to associate number facts, I use the following types of questions:
- How does knowing 5 × 4 = 20 help you work out 6 × 4?
- I know that 10 × 7 = 70, how can I use that to find 9 × 7?
- If I know that 20 × 3 = 60, what else do I know?
Routine practice in a fun way
Small amounts of regular practice of anything will strengthen the neural pathways. This means they will fire more quickly and reliably when you need them – all part of the install recall we’re aiming for.
My pupils get two practice sessions lasting about 3 minutes each, every school day for 6 months – Rolling Numbers and Times Tables Rock Stars. Rolling Numbers includes whole-class chanting of the tables involving body percussion, rhymes, rhythms and call-and-response.
Times Tables Rock Stars includes short amounts of daily times tables questions following a carefully sequenced programme I devised. Give pupils a rock name, 60 questions and a 3 minute time-limit and play some rock music. Reward them with titles like Rock Star and Rock Legend for reaching a particular speed threshold, splash posters around the school, display their names in a Top 40 style chart and award them a Platinum disc after correctly answering 2,000 questions. You can also join in, play air guitar and give the Rock Gods red carpet treatment! Times table recall speed will skyrocket.
Three stages to true mastery
There are many ways to go about teaching and learning the times tables and I would venture that none of them alone will lead to true mastery. I’ve found it takes three distinct stages to get there: direct teaching of the basics, learning to associate parts of the times table and old fashioned practice (with a modern twist).
The combination of these three strategies has worked for my students but I don’t claim to have done any empirical testing on the Best Methods Of All Time! I recognise that you’ve probably been having more success than me for longer so I’m all ears if you want to share in the comments what works for you.
You'll be able to see Bruno and Times Tables Rock Stars in action on the SIMS Bett stand (B190) on Wednesday January 20th at 11:10am and 2:30pm. Download the schedule.