Holly Swinton: dyslexia speaker, trainer, author and assessor » News » What other countries can teach us about learning times tables and division

What other countries can teach us about learning times tables and division

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One of the advantages of children from countries like China and Japan is that they tend to be taught to use chants and rhymes to learn their times tables.

My dyslexia meant that I always had to blag my times tables, they never stuck for me.  I have tried every way under the sun to learn them and eventually found a free, simple solution that works for me and for the hundreds of kids I’ve tutored… drum-roll… skip counting.

Which is very similar to what many of the super successful Asian countries already use (alongside the amazing Steiner Waldorf schools).  They say there’s nothing new under the sun, I just wish they’d used this method when I was at school, Maths would have been soooo much easier.

Here are my favourite skip counting songs:

2xtable: Ring a Ring a Roses or Alphabet Song

3xtable: Jingle Bells or This Land is Your Land

4xtable: Row Row Row Your Boat or Mary Had a Little Lamb

5xtable: London’s Burning or Three Blind Mice

6xtable: London Bridge is Falling Down or Frosty the Snowman or Yankee Doodle

7xtable: Happy Birthday or Mary Had a Little Lamb

8xtable: Pat a Cake or the Wheels on the Bus or He’s Got the Whole World or This Old Man or She’ll Be Coming Round the Mountain

9xtable: One Little, Two Little, Three Little Dinosaurs or Star-Spangled Banner

12xtable: Old MacDonald or Jingle Bells or Silent Night

Or here is a lovely collection which go forwards and backwards

Which of these songs should I pick?  

Whichever you and your child know/like/hate least.  I like the first part of  this video as an intro to skip counting because the random inclusion of parkour moves just makes it look really cool. Perhaps one day someone amazing will set all these songs to images of teenagers doing parkour!   If your child likes making videos: check out this for ideas 

How many times will I need to sing this to get it in my child’s head?  

My estimate would be about a hundred times! This needs to be spread out, in as many contexts as possible (in the car, whilst washing up, at the table, in the park, while stroking a pet, in the garden, whilst playing football, whilst cleaning, whilst making dinner, on a trampoline etc. etc.)  The only reason this method fails is not hearing it enough.

Why won’t my child/teen sing it?  

Embarrassment!  Plus, the reason you are learning this is because they don’t know the numbers.  Write out the numbers, then you sing it over and over. They will whinge, but it will go in their head and get stuck there. A word of warning: it will also get stuck in your head and you’ll find yourself singing under your breath at embarrassing times.

But I can’t hold a tune! 

Great. Our brains are wired to remember rubbish things, we don’t tend to remember perfect things.

How do these help my child to multiply?

If they are doing 6×7, then they can choose to count in sixes or in sevens.  If they choose sevens, then they hold up six fingers.  They sing the seven song, putting down a finger for each number, until they have no fingers left: 7, 14, 21, 28, 35, 42.  That will give them the answer: 42. (Incidentally, I think 42 is also the answer to life, the universe and everything, according to Hitch Hiker Guide to the Galaxy)

Can they improve their division?

Yes, that’s the real reason these songs are so effective.  If they are trying to work out 56 divided by 8, they can sing the 8xtable song until they get to 56.  Put up a finger for each number 8, 16, 24, 32, 40, 48, 56. That’s seven fingers, so the answer is seven.

Why use songs rather than just saying them?

I find that if you don’t have a different rhythm and melody, each times table just photocopies over the top of the last one.  Songs get filed in a different region of the brain, as you can see by older people with Alzheimers who can sing, but not speak.  Or older people who can remember childhood songs, but not what they had for lunch.

Why not include more words?

I want it to be as simple as possible to learn, with as few words to learn as possible.  If your child is older and doesn’t struggle with verbal memory, then you might want to do 1×8=8, 2×8=16 etc. but it’s 400% more words for your child to learn.

Why do familiar songs work best? 

There are plenty of songs which people have composed especially, but these don’t tend to be as musically simple or catchy as the ones listed above.  Certain songs are already embedded in our memory, it is easier to link new info to things that are already mastered, that’s how the most effective memory techniques work (linking new stuff to known stuff).  There are cooler songs, which might work like 7xtable sung to the chorus of Farrell Williams’ Happy.

Do they need to learn all of the songs?  

Probably not.  Get them to count in different tables, forwards and back. Start with the ones they are most dodgy on and so most motivated to learn. I teach them at a rate of about one song per week.

What age are they supposed to know different times tables?

In the UK, infant schools (ages 6-7) just want children to learn 2x, 10x, 5x tables because they are the most useful ones.

The UK government has introduced a terrifying computerised times table check in Year Four, which tests 8 and 9 year olds on all times tables up to 12×12!   In my experience, lots of teenagers and adults don’t know their times tables, but this method really is a silver bullet, if they can get over their embarrassment.

But most of the skip counting songs don’t go up to 12x

I know, I’ve had to a bit of rejigging personally, to get them to extend.  Blame Michael Gove!

Well, it seems really complicated and it definitely won’t work!

I know.  I remember (years ago) a lovely teenager I tutored called Chelsea (who now has her own son) trying to teach me one of these that her enlightened Maths teacher at school has taught the class.  I am sorry to say that I initially freaked out, feeling it was impossible.  But, if you can stick at it (like I did) your child could know all their times tables, with minimal effort, in just a couple of months.