Memorizing the multiplication tables: Does it have to be so tedious, difficult, and boring for our child?
Confession time. While I was at school, I hated the multiplication tables. I found memorizing them difficult and mind-numbingly dull. Even until today, I have not quite mastered the tables. Ask me, for example, what is 9 x 7, and I would answer 63, but only after performing some mental gymnastics. I know that 10 x 7 = 70, so 9 x 7 must be 70 – 7 or 63.
I do not want my five-year-old son, Zachary, to suffer the same experience as I did in memorizing the tables or end up fearing maths because of them. I wanted an easy but yet effective technique that Zachary could master the multiplication tables.
But why learn the multiplication tables?
Multiplication, together with addition and subtraction, are the foundation of more advanced mathematics a child would later learn and use. A child who fails to master these skills curses this child to a low self-confidence in learning.
A report in 2011 by Ofsted (The Office for Standards in Education, Children’s Services and Skills), UK argued that:
“Confidence with numbers is an essential part of any child’s early learning. Not only does it help them with day-to-day problem-solving and practical tasks but it also gives them the building blocks to acquire the later mathematical skills valued by the world of industry and higher education.”
The Ofsted report further remarked that learning the multiplication tables by heart is an essential component in mathematics mastery, a task that a child must accomplish before leaving the primary school. It is often said that skipping learning the multiplication tables is like expecting a child to run without having to learn walking first.
The internet offers many suggestions or techniques to aid memorization of the multiplication tables. Some of these techniques require rather abstract reasoning which my son would probably not understand or appreciate. Zachary is only five years old, not seven to ten years old for which some of these techniques seem to target.
Others techniques involve filling in, by rote, the answers in a 9×9 or 5×5 way multiplication table. Some even suggested that the child learns the multiplication by 5s and 10s first, followed by 2s, 4s, 6s, and 8s. None of these techniques, however, attracted me because they still involve boring and tedious memorization.
Computer games to aid memorization have even been developed where the child progresses through a game by answering multiplication problems. Again, I was not attracted to these games because I was looking for a simpler technique. Besides, I did not want Zachary to master the multiplication tables at the price of being addicted to computer games!
I then came across Alan Walker’s technique at multiplication.com. I was attracted to his technique because it involves memorization through pictures and stories. Each number from 2 to 9 is denoted by a picture, such as 2 is a “shoe”, 3 is a “tree”, and 4 is a “door”.
When two numbers are multiplied together, such as 3 x 4, they are translated into their respective pictorial representation. In the case of 3 x 4, it is equivalent to “tree x door” which has the following unique story to aid the child in remembering the answer:
“Once there was an elf. He loved the forest. He loved walking through the big tall trees. The elf decided he wanted to live in a tree because he loved the forest so much. The elf came up with a great idea. He found a great big tree, hollowed it out, and made his house inside the tree. He put a door on his house. The elf loved living in the tree with a door.”
And the answer to “tree x door” is “elf” which rhymes with 12. Thus, 3 x 4 = 12.
As another example, consider: 5 x 7 which translates into “hive x surfin’” (where 5 = hive and 7 = surfin’), and the story for this combination of 5 and 7 is:
“A hive went to the beach. He was afraid of getting hurt on a rocky beach, and sandy beaches were too hot for his feet, so he went to a muddy beach. The hive had a funny way of surfing at the muddy beach. He would surf up to the beach and dive right into the mud. Soon he was very dirty! The hive loved doing the dirty dives.”
And the answer to “hive x surfin’” is “dirty dive” which rhymes with 35. Thus, 5 x 7 = 35.
So, how effective was this technique on Zachary, my five-year-old son? See for yourself:
I taught Zachary slowly and incrementally. Each day for about a month, I would teach him two or three new multiplication problems, but with plenty of revision before I introduce new problems.
In sharp contrast to my experience, Zachary enjoys learning the multiplication table! How many children do you know who can say that? Not only did Zachary enjoy memorizing the tables, he could remember them more easily and effectively.
The success in Alan Walkey’s method is it adds context to each multiplication problem. Rather than memorizing boring and bare 3 x 4 = 12, Alan’s method translates 3 x 4 into “tree” and “door” characters, respectively. The child then recalls the story specifically involving tree and door, which ultimately gives the answer as “elf” (see above description), or 12.
Some people who had bought Alan’s method were initially skeptical because of the additional mental work the child has to do in recalling the multiplication tables. But they were converted into believers when they saw how effective this method was on their children. Instead of burdening the child with additional work of memorizing the pictures and stories, Alan’s method is actually simpler and more effective. Like watching a TV series with many interesting and funny characters that interact with one another differently, Alan’s pictures and stories help in recall, akin to recalling a particular funny TV episode.
Nonetheless, not all children would benefit using Alan’s method. Alan’s pictures and stories are explained in English, so children with poor command in English would probably find his method ineffective simply due to language barrier. This is particular true in Malaysia.
However, if your child reads English well, I strongly recommend this method. Alan’s book can be bought directly from multiplication.com. There is no need to get the Teacher’s manual, as the Student’s eBook is adequate for both child and parent. And the price of the Student’s edition? A steal at USD 4.99, and the result on your child’s education — priceless.