The Importance of Fluency in Times Tables

Fluency in times tables is one of many important aims of the UK 2014 National Curriculum, and after a long-awaited decision from the Government, it is now clear that times tables are going to be the subject of a Y4 online test (piloted in March 2018, optional for schools 2019, and compulsory from 2020).

This recent announcement has polarized views, rousing strong opinions on social media, in blogs and articles, and in face to face educational debates. Many agree with Jo Boaler, professor of mathematics education at Stanford University, who believes that timed multiplication tests cause anxiety for many children and this in turn affects their working memory; preventing recall of mathematical facts.

On the other hand, the government emphasises the importance of ‘knowing’ times tables facts. Nick Gibb, the schools standards minister, reports that the on-screen test (which assesses knowledge of the times tables up to 12) will last five minutes or less and assures teachers that it has been designed to avoid causing additional stress for children and teachers. This sentiment is echoed by Charlie Stripp, director of the National Centre for Excellence in the Teaching of Mathematics (NCETM), when he says that knowing times tables facts is important to mathematical learning and understanding, adding that “It is wrong to tell children that they do not need to memorise their times tables”.*

Whatever our feelings about the Y4 testing of times tables, many educators don’t dispute the fact that knowing times tables is a ‘good thing’; and there are steps that can be taken to help avoid some of the stress that pupils may face in the new test.

Interactive online activities are already popular in maths classes, and have proven an engaging tool for children to develop fluency in applying their maths knowledge. Regularly including online times tables activities in lessons is one way to ensure that children practise the skills needed for the new test in a low stakes environment.

For depth of learning, it is also important that children are given the opportunity to see, explore, and understand the mathematical structures and patterns that lie beneath. Really knowing and being able to apply these facts (and their inverse - up to 12x12) means that working memory is freed up, leaving space to process and think more about new mathematical ideas. With this in mind, offering a range of activities and contexts to support practice and application of pupils’ growing knowledge of times table facts is crucial. Learning opportunities that draw on real-life scenarios, combined with those that utilise interactive and online activities, really encourage the development of fluency and support every child on their journey to truly ‘knowing’ times table facts.

Louise Pennington is a professional development leader for Maths at Oxford University Press. She has previously authored the Times Tables Booster activities content for MyMaths.

Log in to MyMaths to access our Times Table Booster Pack for further practice and resources for your students.

*‘It is wrong to tell children that they do not need to memorise their times tables’ Charlie Stripp 22nd September 2015