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Last Updated: Wednesday, 8 September, 2004, 16:33 GMT 17:33 UK
Call for more times tables chants
children working with number cards
Teachers use a range of methods for numeracy
Children who memorise their times tables with traditional chants do their sums faster and more accurately than others, a science conference has heard.

More children should learn their tables by rote, said Dr Sylvia Steel at the British Association's conference.

She said studies showed those who had learnt their tables by heart did their sums the most effectively.

Maths teachers say they use the times tables with a range of other techniques to get children to multiply numbers.

Dr Steel, a research associate at Royal Holloway University, London, said children who used blocks or fingers to work out the problems were slower and less accurate.

"If I had my way, children would know their tables, but it is important children should understand what they are doing rather than just chanting," she said.

'Behind closed doors'

She told delegates rote learning had given way over the past 30 years to methods using shapes, diagrams or grids, which aimed to emphasise understanding or arithmetic concepts.

"Learning multiplication tables was, for a while, almost extinct in state schools because it was considered boring and unlikely to lead to understanding," said Dr Steel.

But many teachers taught children by rote "behind closed doors", she said.

Ten years ago, there was less recalling of tables but we have gone back to them
Barbara Ball, association of maths teachers
Children aged between seven and 12 took part in two studies which involved working out problems from memory, calculation and counting.

"Auditory rote learning of multiplication tables appeared to be the most successful method of mastering multiplication facts," said Dr Steel.

Methods which involved counting or calculation did not necessarily lead to automatic retrieval of number facts, she said.

Maths teachers' representatives dispute the claim that too few children learn their times tables by rote.

Barbara Ball, of the Association of Teachers of Mathematics, told BBC News Online that although times tables went out of fashion for a while, they are being learnt in school - alongside a range of other methods.

"Ten years ago, there was less recalling of tables but I would say that we have gone back to the tables.

"There are people who are about 20 who probably don't know their times tables, but the tables are being taught in schools, along with all sorts of other strategies.

"There is no right way or wrong way of doing anything and teachers have a range of different strategies because what helps one child to learn a concept might not work for another."

She said the introduction of the numeracy hour in schools, with its emphasis on whole-class teaching, probably meant more tables were being taught.

However, she said different children might prefer different ways of arriving at answers, such as doubling or halving.

For example, when asked what seven eights were, a child might get the answer by first saying that seven fours were 28, then doubling that to get 56.

Rising results in the national schools tests suggested children were getting better at maths, she said.

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