When 10 times 1 equals fun

Learning tables can be difficult and embarrassing for children. Karen Gold looks at new methods that could ease the stress
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The Independent Online
W ould any self-respecting child really want a tables game for Christmas? There are more than 50 games purporting to help children to learn their times-tables pleasurably on sale to schools through educational suppliers or in high-street shops. You can have tables jokes, tables bingo, tables puzzles, even tables Muzak. But do they really work? And do they live up to their claims to be fun?

As a seasonal test, we asked the junior class of pupils aged 7-11 at Babraham Church of England Primary School in Cambridgeshire whether they fancied any of a selection of tables games in their Christmas stockings. The youngest children in the class are just starting to learn tables by taking home half a table each week to learn: the oldest know most of them. There is a chart showing who knows which table, partly keeping track, partly as an incentive, kept by their teacher, Rachel Rogers, on the classroom wall.

It hardly constitutes pressure. Certainly not compared with the experiences a random selection of adults questioned in Plymouth town centre recalled for the maths researcher Wendy Fortescue-Hubbard. Boredom, dread, fear, rote, difficult, pressure, embarrassment, and intimidated were just some of the words they associated with learning multiplication tables.

Ms Fortescue-Hubbard, a former comprehensive school maths teacher who is now doing research for a PhD at the University of Plymouth, argues that the source of maths anxiety was not just the old-fashioned tables- chanting. (Chanting is largely abandoned in schools now, after studies showed that more often than not the back row was simply going "da-da-di- da". Today's alternative is "look-cover-check", where the child tries to memorise the table, write it down and then checks for mistakes.)

Tables are taught at an age when children are increasingly self-conscious. So even written tests, let alone quick-fire questions from the front, can make a child feel humiliated in front of peers. Add to that parental involvement - one mother told Ms Fortescue-Hubbard she kept her daughter under the shower until she had recited her tables without a mistake - and the tales of tables phobia become easy to understand.

But tables are important. The National Curriculum insists "multiplication facts" must be known, though it gives no guidance on how they should be taught. If time and mental effort are expended in simple calculations, then they are not available for more complex maths at higher primary and secondary level.

So what does it take for a child to learn tables effectively? Random practice, so the child can recall facts without having to plough through the whole table, and immediate feedback on whether they have the right answer, says Ms Fortescue-Hubbard, whose research is geared to finding new ways for children and adults to learn their tables.

They need to be clear what they do and do not know: most people have a shaky spot round about the seven times or eight times mark because they have not pulled those out and learnt them properly. They need to know both multiple and factor: saying two, four, six, eight, will not do. They need to be able to use each pair of numbers both ways: so knowing that six contains three twos as well as two threes.

And if anxiety is not to inhibit their fluency, they need to be calm and, if possible, to have fun.

The games the Babraham pupils sampled gave them varying amounts of fun. They had fun doing aerobics to the Early Learning Centre's Times Tables tape (pounds 1.99), the one probably best known to parents, but agreed unanimously that it would not teach them any tables. They vied to play the computer game, although after half an hour it began to pall.

But the game that they found increasingly addictive was Ms Fortescue- Hubbard's own invention, a card-game called "Perfect Times" (see below), which she developed when she found that some of her first-year secondary pupils were embarrassed about their lack of fluency with multiplication tables. Now patented, it goes on sale next spring. The charm of this is that children can see their own times tumble, from minutes to seconds, without needing to compete with, or be embarrassed by, anyone else.


Star rating: ***

Age: 7-11

Cost: pounds 6.99

Tape plus board-game. Professor Playtime asks tables questions on tape. Player puts counter on the right answer on the board. Sound effects on tape confirm the answer - eg cow moos to match picture of cow on the right square of the board.

Mrs Rogers: "Quite good. But it doesn't teach tables, it only reinforces them. The professor's cod German accent made it difficult to understand."

Alex, 7, and Heidi, 10: "It's good that you know if you've got it right from the sound on the tape. When two people play you can feel embarrassed if the other person is better at tables than you are."

Christmas stocking? We'd rather have the computer game

Made by Living & Learning, Abbeygate House, East Road, Cambridge CB1 1DB.

Amazing Maths

Star rating: *****

Age: 5-adult

Cost: pounds 23.44

Computer game for Acorn/PC/Nimbus. Player has to manoeuvre computer creature through gates, past demons and Draculas, by correctly answering tables questions appearing on screen. Scores depend on speed of response. Adjustable level of difficulty.

Mrs Rogers: "This is good because it's infinitely variable. The children loved it - they were hoping for a wet playtime so they could carry on. The enthusiasm did wear off a bit though.

Craig, 10 and Eddie, 8: "Excellent. You don't have long to answer the questions so it's exciting and they test you a lot. It wouldn't be so good without the demons."

Christmas stocking? Yes, yes, yes.

Made by Cambridgeshire Software House, 7 Freechurch Passage, St Ives, Huntingdon, Cambridgeshire PE17 4AY.


Star rating: *

Age: 5-8

Cost: pounds 7.34

Card-game. Player turns over a number card to fill the gap in questions such as "How many toes have babies?" and then works out the answer.

Mrs Rogers: "One child who loves reading and comprehension liked this, but the rest of them were going 'Do what?' It's easy to cheat because you can see the numbers through the back of the cards. Not much fun, more like an old-fashioned maths book."

Bei-Bei, 7 and Jessica, 8: "It takes about five minutes to work out one answer and you don't know if you've got it right or not."

Christmas stocking? No thanks.

Made by Taskmaster, Morris Road, Clarendon Park, Leicester LE2 6BR.


Star rating: ****

Age range: 4-adult

Cost: about pounds 14-18

(Not available until Feb/Mar 1996.)

Card-game with stopwatch. Player lays out set of cards for one multiplication table face up, eg 5, 10, 15, 20 etc.

Player then picks one card at a time from a second set of face-down multiplier cards, eg 1x, 2x, 3x, 4x, that have been shuffled into random order. Player has to match multiplier cards to the right answers in the spread-out set as quickly as possible. You can race against clock or another player.

Mrs Rogers: "Excellent. The only one you could use really to learn tables, rather than just reinforce them. It takes a bit of time to work out how to do it: parents would have to be quite keen."

Sarah, 7 and Chris, 9: "You have to add on extra time if you look up the answer, but that helps you remember it. It means you can find out which ones you don't know. On our best tables it takes about 30 seconds."

Christmas stocking? Yes, probably.

Made by Southgate Publishers, 15, Barnfield Ave, Exmouth, Devon EX8 2QE.


Star rating: **

Age: 7-11

Cost: pounds 22.27

Plastic box with sliders. Insert cards with tables questions into box. Player says answer, then moves slider to uncover answer and check if correct. Cards vary in difficulty.

Mrs Rogers: "It only reinforces, doesn't teach. Some of the boys quite enjoyed it because it was a gizmo. Terrible value."

Daudi, 7 and Jonathan, 10: "It's OK for once but not for every day."

Christmas stocking: Probably not.

Made by Taskmaster (see above).


Star rating: ***

Age: 7-11

Cost: pounds 11.34

Ludo-type board-game. Up to four players have to answer the tables question (eg 9 x 5) on the square where their counter lands, after throwing dice. The right answer is on the picture of a cat. The aim is to be the first to cover up every answer on the cat.

Mrs Rogers: "Quite fun, but it takes a long time to cover the cat. Only reinforces simple tables. Rather expensive."

Johannes, 9 and Thomas, 8: "You go round the board tons of times, and if you don't know the answer you have to stay on that square until you find it out. It's OK. You wouldn't know if you'd got the answer wrong unless your friends told you."

Christmas stocking? Maybe.

Made by Taskmaster (see above).