Teaching the Times Tables

I’ve been tutoring maths for a number of years now. I’ve tutored boys and girls. I’ve tutored individuals and small groups. I’ve tutored children of all ages from very different social backgrounds. But they have all had one thing in common: none of them knew their times tables, and this was really hindering their progress in maths.

Of course I told them that they needed to know their tables off by heart, but their parents and teachers had already told them this. If it was that easy they would have learnt them already. So this year I have made it my mission to get all the children I tutor to learn all of their times tables.

To start with I created a desire to learn them. I made a colourful chart to show progress, and offered rewards of stickers for each of the tables that they learnt. But not just any old stickers – exciting, shiny ones that made their eyes light up when they saw them. The boys especially liked these football ones from Superstickers.

Now I had children who were desperate to learn their times tables. What next?

We took the tables one at a time and started by chanting them. When we had chanted them forwards a few times, we did them backwards, then odd numbers only and even numbers only to get used to the idea of knowing them out of order. After that it was a case of practise, practise, practise. The trick was finding enough different ways to practise the same thing so that the children didn’t get bored with it.

I made some sets of cards with the questions and answers so that we could play pelmanism, and these proved very popular. I encouraged the children to read aloud the question as they turned each card over, and to work out what answer they needed to match before turning over the next card. We also used the same cards to play snap, and a race against the clock game to match all up all of the question cards with their answers – trying to be faster each time.

Although the children loved all of these games, I was very aware that I couldn’t rely on the same sets of cards forever without the children thinking “Oh no – not those again!” and losing motivation. I looked around for some new ideas and found some lovely products on Sue Kerrigan’s let me learn website.

The turn table cards were recommended to me by the trainer on a dyslexia course I attended. They are designed for multi-sensory learning and are really good fun to play with. On one side of the card they have a question eg 2×3 and a picture of an array to show children what 2×3 looks like and to give them a visual clue. On the other side is the answer. The children say the question and answer aloud (hearing their own voice) and then turn over the card to see if they are correct. There is a video of how to use them here . I usually use them with one child at a time, focusing on one set of tables at a time, using them as shown in the video, and then doing races against the clock to beat their own personal time. However I have also used them with a group of children each working on a different set of tables. One group of girls I worked with recently, who were all working on the same set of tables, made up another game to play with these cards which they found great fun: all of the cards were put answer-side-up in the middle of the table. I called out a question and they had to grab the card they thought showed the correct answer. They turned the card over to see if they were right, and if they were, they repeated the question and answer and kept the card.  If they were wrong they replaced the card. The winner was the girl with the most cards when they had all been grabbed. All of the children I have used these cards with have really enjoyed it, and I’m sure there are many more games that can be invented using them.

I found the maths wrap while I was browsing the site, and just thought I would give it a go. It’s used for learning tables “in order”, but is great for kinaesthetic learners. Across the top is a strip with numbers 1 to 12. At the bottom is space to put a strip of one of the tables, each of which contains all the answers but jumbled. You have to chant the tables aloud, hunting for the correct answer along the bottom strip and then wrapping the string around the correct number each time. When you have finished you can turn it over to look at the pattern marked on the back. If the children have got all the answers correct, the pattern made by the string will match the pattern printed on the back of the card. When I bought it, I thought it might be one just for the girls, but actually the boys have enjoyed using it just as much. One of my Year 5 boys said “Every child should have one of these. They’re really cool!” I even had texts from two mums, because their sons had been talking so much about how much fun it was that they wanted to know where I got them from so that they could get them as stocking fillers.

As we progressed through the tables we looked at how few they had left. By using counters to demonstrate that for example 2×3 was the same as 3×2, we were able to colour code each new set of tables to show which ones they already knew and which ones were still to be learnt. They learned the easy ones (2x, 5x and 10x) first, which made the chart look less bare, and earned them some shiny stickers pretty quickly. Then they did 4x (easy because it was double 2s). 3x came next (tricky but the colour coding showed that they already knew 2, 4, 5 and 10 x3, so there where only half of them still to learn). Then 6x was easy because it was double 3s. By the time we came to the tricky ones like 7x, the progress chart was looking quite full, and the colour coding showed that they already knew 2, 3, 4, 5, 6 and 10x 7, so all that was left was 7×7, 8×7 and 9×7. Suddenly the sevens didn’t seem so scary and the motivation continued.

Of course it took a long time, although considering the fact that I only see these children once a week it took less time than I expected. In September two of my boys didn’t know any of their times tables, not even 2x or 10x. They now know all of them. Not only do they know them off by heart, but they are able to apply them in all areas of maths, for example working with equivalent fractions. They immediately recognise numbers that are in their times tables which means their skills in division have improved. Their mental arithmetic skills have improved because they can multiply 6 by 7 straight away, instead of having to count up 7 lots of 6 on their fingers, so they have more time to think about what the questions are asking them to do with the information. They have both moved up a maths group at school and their confidence is higher. One of them said to me recently that he used to hate maths, but that he really loves it now. And that’s why I really love my job!

For maths and English tutoring in the north Birmingham, Sandwell and Walsall areas, visit www.sjbteaching.com. For links to other interesting education related articles, come and Like my Facebook page.

Languages at 5 – what’s all the fuss about?

The government suggest that children should start learning languages at the age of five, and suddenly in true British fashion we are throwing up our hands in horror. We are criticising the government for suggesting such a ridiculous idea. We are throwing up every obstacle we can think of, dismissing as irrelevant the fact that other countries teach their children English from a young age, and focusing firmly on the negative.

One of the poorest excuses for not learning a language I have heard in the last 24 hours is: “It’s different for us. We’re an island so we are more cut off from the rest of Europe.” Maybe you forgot, but we are connected to mainland Europe by train lines now. It’s quicker for someone in London to get to a non-English speaking city, than for someone in Frankfurt to get to a non-German speaking city.

“What’s the point in teaching our children a foreign language when they haven’t got a wide English vocabulary yet, and they are still struggling with the complexities of our own grammar?” The point is that at this age language skills come more easily to them. When they are still mispronouncing some words in their own language they are not afraid to have a go at pronouncing foreign words.

In the last couple of years I have taught a variety of languages to Foundation Stage and Key Stage 1 children. They have sung French songs in a presentation for new parents, German ones in school assemblies, and Latin carols in Christmas plays. In fact last Christmas one 5 year old girl I had been teaching was so confident that she sang a solo in Latin!

I’ve told them stories in a number of different languages, and they have taken great delight in joining in with repeated phrases. They have learnt not to get hung up about understanding every single word as long as they understand the important parts.

These children have been praised for their abilities and they now see having knowledge of a foreign language as something to be proud of, not something to be scared of.

Nobody is suggesting that we suddenly expose a five year old to the difficulties of German cases, so let’s do something really radical. Let’s put all our language prejudices aside and examine the positive side of teaching languages to children at a younger age.

One of the main frustrations in learning a new language is not being able to express yourself in that language as easily as you can in your own, and this is what causes a lot of learners to lose heart and give up. The older you are when you begin to learn a second language, the greater the chasm between your ability in your own language and in the one you are learning. By beginning to give children the tools they need to learn a second language, we are closing that gap. At this young age children are happy to be learning just words and short phrases, so there is no need for teachers to worry that they don’t have enough knowledge.

Starting teaching languages at 5 lays foundations for more in-depth language learning in KS2. The children already have 2 years of vocabulary behind them so by the time they start to learn some grammar they have enough words at their disposal to build useful sentences with.

What about the fact that they struggle with grammar in their own language? People are assuming that teaching grammar in MFL lessons, and grammar in literacy lessons have to be mutually exclusive, but this does not have to be the case. Grammar is grammar in any language. Nouns are still nouns, verbs are still verbs, and (in European languages) sentences still have to begin with a capital letter and end with a full stop. A sentence in any language needs a verb to make it make sense, and adding a connective will make it more interesting. Instead of being scared of teaching languages to primary school children we should embrace it as a means to reinforce their learning in English. It can even be used as an aid to expanding their English vocabulary. For example: “French only has one word for small – how many can you think of in English? Let’s use a thesaurus to find some more.”

Why then stop at reinforcing English? I have taught children to tell the time in French the week after they did it in their maths lesson, thus consolidating what they have learnt. The children were happy to do it again because it was in a different language, and those children who had struggled to tell the time when it was taught in English had a second chance to pick it up.

We already have several generations who are terrified by the thought of speaking another language. Don’t we owe it to our children to let them be the ones to whom it is second nature?

Why Do They Do That?

It’s a question I’ve often asked myself when I’ve read children’s work and seen capital letters in the middle of sentences; lines and lines of writing without a full stop, and then a random one placed for no apparent reason; and exclamation marks in the middle of instructions.  So why do they do that?  For the last two years I have been lucky enough to be contracted for 1-2-1 tuition with a number of children. By working so closely with them I have gained an insight into how their minds work when they are writing, and some of life’s great mysteries have been revealed.

Let’s start with capitalisation in the middle of sentences. What’s that all about then? “Miss told us that names have to start with capital letters,” they told me when I asked. And “apple” is the name of a fruit, and “oak” is the name of a tree. Unfortunately, somewhere down the school they were also told that nouns are naming words (yes, I know, I think I’ve been guilty of that one as well), so now every noun has a capital letter.

How about full stops?  I’ve been that teacher that nags the class “Don’t forget to put full stops at the end of every sentence!” and I know I’m not the only one. When I’ve asked the children I’ve been tutoring what they know about full stops, they happily parrot, “You have to put one at the end of every sentence.” They know. So why don’t they do it? Because it seems, a lot of children have no idea what a sentence is. So they just keep on writing till they have no more ideas, and then put a full stop. Then when they think of a new idea, they start a new sentence.

What about those exclamation marks that appear at the end of sentences such as, “First, take the bread out of the packet! Next, get the butter out of the fridge!”? I was baffled when I first asked a child, whose writing target was to use exclamation marks correctly, when he thought he should use them and he told me that you had to use them every time you were telling somebody how to do something. It seems he thought it was called an explanation mark! And he’s not alone. I’ve tutored 3 children of different ages from different schools who all thought the same things, so it’s obviously a fairly common misconception.

All these things are really easy to correct when you have time to work one-to-one with the children – but not so easy when you have 29 other children needing your attention, because no matter how much you want to you just don’t have time to spend half an hour with one child. That’s why I really love my job.

Why I love being self-employed (Part 6)

This reason follows on from the last, as it’s still about CPD. Two years ago I decided that I would like to learn British Sign Language – partly because I’ve always had an interest in communication, partly because as a language teacher I always enjoy trying out new languages, and partly because I really enjoy working with under-achieving children, and deaf children tend to under-achieve.

Having chosen the course I wanted, I eagerly scanned the list of adult education classes that came through my door, discounted all the ones that were on the far side of Birmingham, and all the ones that were on nights when I did private tuition, and was left with one on at 10am on Mondays. If I was employed full-time in a school I would have had to give up right there, but being self-employed I can choose my own hours, so I signed up for it.

Now, unlike most people I love Monday mornings. I can have a bit of a lie-in, a leisurely breakfast and I miss the morning rush hour. I get to start the week by being a learner not a teacher, so I can remind myself what it’s like to be in the position of the children in my class. And at the end of it all I come away with new skills and qualifications.

Why I love being self-employed (Part 5)

Be honest – put your hand up if you’ve enjoyed every single INSET day you’ve ever had. It’s fine when they’re about something you have an interest in, or if it’s something that’s useful even if a little on the boring side.  Unfortunately sometimes they are neither interesting nor useful, but you have to turn up for them anyway. I remember one particular training day I endured, where we had a singing teacher come in and we had to spend the whole day learning and singing new songs. As someone who was told at the age of seven that with a voice like mine I should never – ever, under any circumstances – open my mouth and sing, I have had nightmares about that particular INSET day ever since.

Being self-employed means that I am now responsible for my own CPD. I no longer have to sit through training courses that bore me – I can choose whatever I want to do. Sometimes it’s something quick and inexpensive, such as reading a teaching magazine for ideas; sometimes it’s something longer term, such as the free courses you can follow through OpenLearn at the Open University. Other times I will splash out on a course that particularly interests me – for example the British Sign Language class that I’m enrolling on for the 3rd year running (completed level 1, now half way through the two-year level 2 course). From September I have booked myself onto a series of courses for teaching children with dyslexia. I’m far more excited about those than I ever have been about an INSET day.

Of course it’s not always easy when I have to fund my CPD myself, but given a choice between paying and choosing myself, or free training chosen on my behalf, I wouldn’t swap the freedom I have.