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Multiplication Tables: A Key Skill

Flash cards still work. Memorizing math facts is important for algebra.

Remember memorizing the multiplication tables? Studying flash cards over and over again, until 9 x 6 = 54 was something you knew by heart? Today, there’s “new math,” and with it comes new ways to learn the multiplication tables. Just don’t count out the old ways — rote memorization is still part of the equation.

Marbles can be used to illustrate the the multiplication fact 2 x 3 = 6.Today’s approach is often to use multiple strategies to illustrate concepts. For instance, students are given two groups of marbles, with three in each group, to show that 2 x 3 = 6. With that example, they relate the image of the marbles to a multiplication table. Another strategy includes the use of Cuisenaire blocks, which are colorful blocks and rods that represent numbers. (Think Lego.)

“What’s been shown through research is that giving kids multiple strategies to understand number sense is actually a stronger way to help them build fluency rather than rote memorization,” explains Jilian Whaley, a K-12 math specialist for the Indian River School District in Delaware.

Adds Barbara Hubbard, a 3rd grade teacher at Signal Hill Elementary School in Voorhees, NJ, “We still do rely on, and encourage, rote memory as we apply learning the concept of multiplication facts.”

To make a potentially tedious process more fun, teachers use songs, rhymes, raps and other tactics. They even use pictures, to give students a visual understanding of the concepts. Fact families, such as 6 x 3, 3 x 6, 18 ÷ 3, and 18 ÷ 6 reinforce the skill, as do patterns through number charts.

“We do whatever we can to make it stick,” says Hubbard. “Third grade is the year that students learn multiplication facts and we make it a big deal.” These new techniques exist alongside old ones. Many teachers still give students speed quizzes in which they are given a number and must recite its multiplication table without any mistakes. The key is that practice makes perfect. Even good old-fashioned flash cards are used.

A Necessary Skill

For those students who don’t grasp the basic multiplication table facts, math will always be much more challenging.

According to Paul Waber, a 6th and 7th grade math teacher at Lionville Middle School in Downington, PA, many kids today do not have quick knowledge of basic math facts such as the multiplication tables, and these kids struggle to catch up to their peers.

“I notice that kids who are in summer school have a lot of trouble with their multiplication facts,” says Waber. “That’s what makes doing Algebra so difficult for them. The processes get fairly complicated, and they have an awfully hard time when they’re working with systems of equations.”

Waber spends time in his middle school classes reinforcing the multiplication tables. “I tell the kids, ‘Back when I was in school, when dirt was new, we used to stand up on our desks and recite them,’” he says.

Students must master their multiplication facts without relying on calculators, which are introduced as early as 1st grade. Whaley maintains that calculators are only used as another means for getting an answer, not to replace pencil-and-paper strategies.

What You Can Do at Home

There isn’t enough time in math class for students to memorize all of the facts, so it’s important that they practice at home.

“The best thing parents can do is get in touch with the teacher, either through e-mail, phone call or parent conference, to figure out where their child stands,” says Whaley. “Then the teacher can teach the parent strategies and help with what they can do at home.”

Waber insists that flash cards still work. “Take five minutes a night and go through one number forwards and backwards,” he suggests. “That’s enough practice. You do that on a regular basis and that should get the kids up to snuff.”

Parents don’t even need to make their own flashcards. Many online resources are free to families. (See sidebar.) Many teachers also provide helpful links on their websites.

“Technology has totally changed not just the way that we teach math, but just about every subject,” concludes Hubbard. “We need parents to realize just how important their part in all this is. Not only do we rely on the parents, we appreciate everything they do.”

Terri Akman is a local freelance writer.

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