Teaching children who have a weak working memory the times tables facts

Over the years I have often tutored Dyslexic children who have struggled with mathematics, and one massive causal factor is their inability to learn the times tables.

They become distressed by the mere thought of tackling the times tables because they find the task overwhelming. And it is probably unsurprising that this difficulty with numbers accompanies Dyslexia as one key indicator of Dyslexia is a difficulty with different aspects of phonological processing (that is the processing of speech sounds) and phonological processing skills,

‘Play a critical role in learning to read, write and spell, particularly for alphabetical writing systems. They also appear to be involved in mathematics.’ Wagner, Torgesen and Rashotte, 1999)

Expecting children with poor phonological processing skills to not only assimilate verbal information readily but also to go on to recall this information precisely, is asking too much of them, they need to be taught a different way.

And having difficulty learning the times tables by rote is not the sole difficulty children with dyslexia may struggle with. They often find re-ordering numbers mentally impossible because they cannot readily visualise digits to re-order them. This disables the ease by which they can move from step to step when calculating sums. This is also why some children still count using their fingers well into their teenage years.

Writing integral steps down on the paper is a huge help to all people who have working memory difficulties. And a child recently stood up and hugged me when I suggested she wrote down the times tables answers for the six times table and then go back and count them, to work out how many times the 6 had been multiplied by to get to 36. She had finally assimilated the answers, but simultaneously recalling how she got there was a step too far, for her working memory. And another pupil has to write digits from 1-20 down at the side of the paper to do basic addition and subtraction steps, she cannot do this mentally despite being of average intelligence. And this same girl can happily work out simple algebraic equations.

I set out to try and create a times tables exercise book that was not simply a rote learning tool as clearly this approach will not work for children with working memory problems. I wanted to make the children create their own times tables, as they go. My approach has been to start off with the underlying structure of numbers. Odd and even numbers are highlighted at the outset. Multiplying two even numbers produces an even answer: 2 x 4 = 8. And two odd numbers multiplied together: such as 5 x 3 produces the odd number answer 15. But an even number multiplied by an odd numbers produces an even answer: 3 x 6 = 18. The learner is thus already starting to engage with processing numbers and being a detective not a dispirited observer. The book immediately moves on to focusing on the fact that zero is zero whatever it is multiplied by because children can be very confused about this. Zero is not an odd or an even number it is nothing! The exercise book has two pages devoted to each times table and the learner is initially tasked with selecting the correct answer from a non-sequential list of the answers. They then move on to supplying a missing factor that creates an answer. They are not simply given the answers. Each times table has an image, the two times tables image is a pair of trainers, the nine times tables image is a cat. And the book also includes questions related to the times table involved. What  is a three sided shape called? What is 32? What is 36 divided by 12? What is the highest common factor of 36 and 12? What is the square root of 9? Worksheets teaching shape names, square numbers and square roots, highest common factors and lowest common multiples are also in the book. The exercise book also highlights number patterns in the answers to the times tables particularly the: 3, 6, 9 and 12 times tables. Most children are quite fascinated by the way the patterns repeat. And hopefully by the end of the workbook they have learnt not just the times tables facts but learnt how to apply these facts in various ways and why the facts matter.