Learning of tables can help children

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The Independent Online

Primary school children should return to rote learning of times tables to improve their mathematics skills, scientists said yesterday after assessing the results of a five-year study.

Primary school children should return to rote learning of times tables to improve their mathematics skills, scientists said yesterday after assessing the results of a five-year study.

Although such systems have fallen out of favour, simple repetition of the "vocabulary" of basic arithmetic means children can do sums quickly, even in the age of calculators, said Sylvia Steel of Royal Holloway, University of London.

"We think children don't have to know tables now because they have calculators, but the problem with that is that you can't use a calculator for everything. It doesn't give you a feel for the number - you just put them in and an answer pops up, but is it right? What about trying to reduce a fraction to its simplest form? You can't do that with a calculator."

Dr Steel's initial studies of 241 children aged between 7 and 12, done between 1995 and 1998, used computer-based multiple-choice tests to see how quickly children could solve a range of arithmetic problems. It found that children who had learnt their times tables, and so could "retrieve" answers immediately, were two times faster at the tasks than those who tried to work out the answers by calculating directly or counting on their fingers. But the numbers capable of such "retrieval" were small. "Even at the top end of primary school only one-third could retrieve all the answers for the sums they were given," said Dr Steel. "And one-fifth of 11-year-olds relied on counting for all their multiplication."

She repeated the study earlier this year, to see whether the Government's 1999 launch of its National Numeracy Strategy had had any effect. Dr Steel said there was little change, adding: "The most able children haven't changed, but the bottom group are still relying on counting."

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