How to Learn Times Tables: Teaching Pupils For Instant Recall From KS1 To KS2

Learning times tables can be difficult. KS1 and KS2 teachers face the annual challenge of teaching times tables robustly so that pupils have instant recall. Without this foundational skill, pupils will struggle as they move up the school and face more complex maths problems – so it’s important we get it right!

In this article, we guide you through the process of teaching times tables, combining the classroom experience of Deputy Head Pete Richardson, who’s been teaching times tables to Year 1 right up to Year 6 for many years now, with Third Space’s own expertise developing strategies to support learners in online one to one maths tuition.

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KS1 & 2 Times Tables Termly Planner

Printable term by term breakdown of the national curriculum expectations for times tables at KS1 and KS2 and strategies for teaching each year

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Why do children learn times tables at primary school?

Sometimes we have to go back to basics to remember the reason why we’re teaching something. The answer here is not just so that they can pass their Year 4 multiplication tables check!

There are three overwhelming reasons why we need children to prioritise learning their times tables at primary school:

1. Times tables are fundamental to many maths topics

Fractions is the most obvious area where learning times tables well is essential. However, every multiplication, division, long multiplication method and short division and long division method require speed and instant recall of times tables while at primary school. At secondary school the needs become even greater.

Times tables are central to KS2 Maths and need to be embedded by Year 4 in order for pupils to practice and cement this skill. Otherwise, pupils will struggle as they move up Key Stage 2 and prepare for their KS2 SATs and beyond.

2. Freeing up working memory allows pupils to develop their reasoning skills

There are certain mental maths facts and operations children need to be able to carry out quickly and with a degree of automaticity in order to free up their working memory for newer, more challenging tasks at hand.

If we can ensure the transition of times tables facts to children’s long term memory and times tables can become an instantly recallable fact the working memory can be freed up for reasoning.

All children need to go through these cognitive steps in order to achieve this. Some will only need a light touch whilst some will need significantly longer on particular points.

3. Multiplication and division feature very highly in the KS2 SATs reasoning papers

Many of the end of Year 6 maths reasoning questions in the KS2 SATs seem to necessitate the use of multiplication facts and related division facts by the children in order for them to simplify complex questions.

Question 8 in Maths SATs Reasoning paper 2
Question 8 in 2018 Maths SATs Reasoning paper 2

This post guides you through the times tables strategies and structures you can put in place across your school to help teach times tables effectively from early years to KS2 and achieve the goal of instant recall across all multiplication tables.

We’ve also included a free Times Tables Termly Planner to help you plan your times tables strategy for each year group.

Learning times times tables facts first

Children need to understand and know these facts about how times tables work before they start learning them and before they can master them for the times table check.

1. Repeated addition

4 x 5 is the same as 5 + 5 + 5 + 5. 

Children need experience of using concrete maths manipulatives such as counters or multilink cubes and pictorial representations of objects, forming arrays.

Read more on the importance of concrete pictorial abstract here, and how to use it.

2. Multiplication is commutative

4 x 5 is the same as 5 x 4.

Commutative Law when teaching times tables

Children build on their existing understanding using arrays, turning the arrays around to show that you now have 5 groups of 4 and they will still total 20. This can then be linked to recalling multiplication facts, i.e. if they know their 5 times table as facts but not their 4 times table, they can use 4 x 5 to work out 5 x 4. This link needs to be made explicit.

3. Multiplication is the inverse of division

20 ÷ 5 = 4 can be worked out because 5 x 4 = 20.

Again, the use of arrays is key. Children need experience of pulling arrays apart into groups or sharing. After basic experience has been gained, the children should start to ‘see’ an array structure as 5 groups of 4 equal 20 and 20 can be split into 5 groups of 4.

multiplication and division lesson slide from Third Space Learning's online maths tuition
A Third Space Learning Year 4 lesson on the relationships of multiplication and division facts

4. Number families

4 x 5 = 20, 5 x 4 = 20, 20 ÷ 5 = 4, 20 ÷ 4 = 5

Due to their commutative understanding, by now children should also be able to see whole number families. For many children this will need to be pointed out and discussed. Most children will be able to explore this in its abstract form but if in doubt, go back to arrays.

From here it is only a short jump to understanding that any missing number can be worked out through knowledge of number families, e.g. 4 x [ ] = 20 or [ ] ÷ 4 = 5. There are other methods children can use to work out missing numbers but our goal is to increase working memory in order to increase instant recall from long term memory. Being able to bounce around a number family will achieve that.

1,2,3… Counting is the key to learning times tables in KS1 and KS2

Counting will start before beginning to develop understanding and reasoning but will continue long after, until all times tables can be counted through sequentially at speed.

Start by counting concrete items

Ensure counting in 2s begins with concrete manipulatives such as shoes, socks, hands, etc. before moving on to using counters or other manipulatives. Whenever starting children counting in a new amount, such as counting in 8s, children should be given the opportunity to see visually what that looks like to reinforce 4 x 8 looks quite big compared to 4 x 6. They can then look for patterns such as 4 x 8 is the same as 4 x 4, doubled.

word problem using times tables

Don’t be afraid of drilling the times tables

Some drilling is inevitable when developing counting, initially alongside concrete and pictorial manipulatives but quickly moving to chanting ‘3 times 7 is 21, 4 times 7 is 28’ etc.

Children should by now be used to representing numbers in different ways, for example a counter could represent 1, 2, 5, or 10. Once children are secure with this, fingers can be used to count quickly in any multiplication table.

What about the 11 x and 12x? Get children make two fists and begin at 11x with one finger up, two fingers up for 12x, supported by their place value understanding.

Display times times tables around your school

Counting sequences should be highly visible everywhere!

• If you have steps, commission a student artist to paint ‘6, 12, 18…’ on each step in a mural style

• Have some appropriate sequences visible in your hall and rather than entering and exiting assemblies in silence, replace with chanting

• Set up year group counting sequences linked to the times table expectations in each classroom

• Use the hop-scotch grid in the playground to make maths fun

• It’s a good idea to include counting sequences linked to the national curriculum for counting – this is different from recall of multiplication facts expectations, for example Year 2 are expected to count in 3s  

Don’t forget to keep the previous year’s sequences up too to support those that need more time to consolidate counting sequences.

• Keep it engaging – Bruno Reddy’s Rolling Numbers activity is a must watch video for this

When combined, all of the above techniques will be more than enough to get most pupils through the government check.

Deeper understanding of multiplication facts and times tables

For children with small working memories, frequently children with special educational needs, being able to count quickly and accurately will give them an appropriate alternative to instant recall, as long as it is underpinned with reasoning and understanding.

However these children can often then struggle to convert the ability to count rapidly into being able to instantly recall facts. By working on children’s deeper understanding of what multiplication is, how it is related to division and number families you should be able to address this.

Learning instant recall across all times tables

Not all children will need the suggested structure below, however it will help those who struggle to convert quick counting into instantly recallable facts.

The example is for the 6 times table but the principle can be applied to any.

Teaching 6 Times Table step by step

  1. Fire just 1 x 6, 2 x 6, 5 x 6, 10 x 6 at them first. This will build up on their most secure existing table facts
  2. Add in 3 x 6, 4 x 6 when step 1 is frequently recalled correctly and instantly
  3. Build up with 6 x 6, 7 x 6, 8 x 6
  4. When looking at 9 x 6, 11 x 6 and 12 x 6, children should:
  5. Look at finding 10 x 6 and adjust
  6. Be guided to remember what the last 2 numbers were in the sequence they learnt (66, 72)
  7. Add in related division facts. For some children, this step can be integrated from step 1 onwards. For others, they will need time to develop recall of multiplication facts first before adding this in.

When giving children quick fire questions to recall, particularly in the early stages of each multiplication table, ensure they are given the opportunity to see the calculation rather than just hear it orally.

Children should be encouraged to quickly count using their fingers to assist them with prompt questions such as ‘6 x 7, we did that a minute ago, can you remember what it was?

Using technology for quick fire recall

Quick fire recall is the perfect opportunity to involve educational technology as there is little more value a teaching assistant or teacher can give other than asking the above style ‘nudging’ question.

Traditionally, these packages support those who are quick to pick up tables pick them up even quicker whilst having limited impact on those who struggle.

However, this pattern is changing and there are innovative packages out there that will support all learners.

When picking which technology package your school should use, ask yourself the following questions:

  • What added value will this give compared to randomly firing out questions?
  • Will the package support children who are not yet secure at counting?
  • Will the package allow me to adapt what is set to match each child’s needs?
  • Is the package accessible at home and from all types of devices?

Two of the most popular options out there, both inexpensive, are Times Tables Rockstars and Hit the Button.  For more options and recommended resources, download the free KS1 / KS2 Times Tables Planner.

Achieving the goal of instant times tables recall

Putting the above steps in place and creating a focus on recall throughout your school will minimise the number of children entering upper Key Stage 2 without a secure grounding of recall times tables facts. There are 2 additional structural steps that will take this to the next level which I’ve detailed below.

Learning times times tables at home

Get counting and developing recall facts for multiplication tables in as an essential ‘little and often’ part of homework, along the same lines all schools expect with reading.

Research says that, at primary age, it is this kind of homework that has the potential to make the most difference. Engage parents and inform them of the steps you’re using; this article on the best way to learn times tables at home has been designed to send home to parents.

Catch up support for those who struggle with recall

Even with all the above in place, a (much smaller) percentage of children will still struggle to recall times table facts. For those with special education needs inhibiting working and long term memory, counting at speed is a realistic point at which to switch focus to other areas of need within Mathematics.

For other struggling learners, try giving them additional time outside English and Maths lessons to secure counting at speed and to push an increasing number of quick fire questions and answers towards long term memory.

In many cases this can be achieved as a frequent morning activity or during assemblies. A Teaching Assistant can support, or if the right technology package is chosen, simply giving them more time to access could be all that is required.

For children who are really having difficulty, nothing beats sitting down and going through them 1-to-1 as the Third Space Learning tutors do as part of their online maths intervention.

10 fun tips for learning and teaching times tables effectively

1. Use times tables chanting

This is a simple yet effective way to drill multiplication knowledge into your pupils . It may not be the most glamorous and exciting way of teaching times tables, but it is a great place to start!

2. Teach times tables in a fun way with songs and multiplication games

Our favourite times tables song is Schoolhouse Rock’s ‘3 Is A Magic Number’ and we’ve got lots of fun times tables games in this blog post.

3. Make use of times tables grids

It might be a simple technique, but it is one that works! Hand out times tables grids to your class and get them to fill them in. Not only will they enjoy the challenge of filling in a times table grid but it will encourage them to practise, practise, practise!

4. Use concrete resources

It doesn’t matter whether it is pasta, counters or even coins, just having a concrete resources to help pupils work out times tables can be massively beneficial.

5. Get active outside the classroom

Our times tables pavement chalk activity above is just one of the outdoor maths ideas could use to make times tables learning more active and therefore memorable for your class.

6. Use pupil’s interests to engage them with times tables

Use the carious interests your class will have to help teach times tables. One of our favourite examples of this is the BBC who have found a way to use football mascots to teach times tables.

7. Use tricks that may be common knowledge to us, but will be revolutionary to young minds

You are well aware by now that you can do the 9 times tables on your fingers, but your pupils may not be just yet!

8. Use quick fire times tables quizzes

Whilst you shouldn’t make quizzes a regular feature, they can be a great way to help pupils get to grips with their times tables. Got 5 minutes spare when walking to swimming lessons? Get a quickfire times tables quiz in. There is always an opportunity to fit a quick times tables quiz in around school.

9. Ask short division based questions

Simple division questions such as “55 divided by 11” and “30 divided by 3” can help pupils realise that times tables and division are closely linked, and can be used in tandem when trying to solve a maths problem.

10. Use times tables worksheets and tests

Your class will rebel if you use these too often, but regular quizzing with times tables tests that children mark themselves can help you to build up a picture of their overall times tables knowledge and where gaps may lie.

Take a look at our collection of times tables worksheets.

And finally…reward pupil efforts regardless of the answer

Nobody is perfect when they are just beginning to learn about something, and this is definitely the case when it comes to times tables and primary school pupils. Don’t be afraid to hand out praise when you see that a child has been working hard in their times tables, even if they haven’t quite got the answer yet.

Don’t forget your free downloads:

How can I learn my times tables quickly?

First, ensure you are confident in how times tables work. Then, practice active recall to move your knowledge to your long term memory. Use flashcards, games and worksheets to quiz yourself.

How can I help my child learn times tables?

Use chanting, display times tables around the room, engage children through games using times tables – here are just some of the ideas to help children gain confidence in and be able to recall times tables instantly!

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FREE Long Division Worksheets for KS2

3 ready to use worksheets for your class that will help them with all aspects of long division from 1-digit numbers through to working out multiples!

One worksheet covering division with 1-digit numbers, one covering 2-digit numbers and one for working out multiples.

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