Making times tables more engaging

Times tables are a key foundational skill in most areas of mathematics. In several of the schools I’ve worked in, year sevens were tasked to be beginning every lesson with tables practice. One of the better ways to encourage this practice involves using the rather brilliant Times Tables Rock Stars, which uses music and careful sequencing to encourage retention.

But for some students, this approach doesn’t work. As a maths tutor I often work with students who find structured practice bland and almost impossible to attend to. Here’s a few tips that I use to maximise engagement:

I love this website.

I use the website for generating on the fly worksheets with ease. They feature a timer and often repeat questions allowing students easy wins. I bring up two of these windows at a time. I encourage the student to practice the times table they need to focus on, while also practicing my own mathematics.

I let the student pick the table I practice: “my 17 times table, from 1 – 500? Well I certainly have room for improvement there!”

The idea is that we are both focusing and working on improving ourself. By doing this, I model the exact mindset and attitude I want to see the student embody, and if they look at my camera, they see me working hard and are reminded to stick with the task.

I recommend they write out the entire times table if they need to, and not to be afraid of counting on their fingers. These practices aid transfer into long term memory.

After we have finished and marked our answers, I get them to note down how many correct sums they have written. We shelf that number, and create a poem to embed the times table.

Is no maths in heaven a contentiously negative mathematical statement?

Rhyme is proven to support retention, and the act of creation is far more engaging than chanting numbers alone. We then chant the rhyme, firstly just me, then together, then just the student.

I’m sorry, “lelve” is not a word, what other words could we use?

After creating and chanting the poem, we return to measure ourselves against the same activity we did before. In the session these poems were used, the student doubled his score on both times tables. Strong and emotive positive praise is then focused on this improvement to embed an improvement focused growth mindset.

This approach utilises four strategies for engaging students:

  1. Short timed tasks, measured and repeated allow for students to understand that they are improving. When combined with praise this develops growth mindset.
  2. Taking part in the task as the teacher shows the student that the task is worth their attention: aversion to such a task will communicate how your student feels! Taking part also provides social motivation: “I got 11, how many did you get?”
  3. Use of poetry rests the cognitive systems required for mathematical operations while embedding the knowledge that those systems call upon.
  4. Use of rhyme and chanting further embed the knowledge required for recall, and allows you to use humour to build rapport.

Try using this strategy with maths averse students today!

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