Memorizing the Math Facts

Central City Times Tables[Photo by dsb nola via flickr.]

The most effective and powerful way I’ve found to commit math facts to memory is to try to understand why they’re true in as many ways as possible. It’s a very slow process, but the fact becomes permanently lodged, and I usually learn a lot of surrounding information as well that helps me use it more effectively.

Actually, a close friend of mine describes this same experience: he couldn’t learn his times tables in elementary school and used to think he was dumb. Meanwhile, he was forced to rely on actually thinking about number relationships and properties of operations in order to do his schoolwork. (E.g. I can’t remember 9×5, but I know 8×5 is half of 8×10, which is 80, so 8×5 must be 40, and 9×5 is one more 5, so 45. This is how he got through school.) Later, he figured out that all this hard work had actually given him a leg up because he understood numbers better than other folks. He majored in math in college and is now a cancer researcher who deals with a lot of statistics.

Ben Blum-Smith
Comment on Math Mama’s post What must be memorized?

The entire discussion (article and comments) is well worth reading:

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Quotable: Learning the Math Facts

Youth Sports Baseball Camp

feature photo above by USAG- Humphreys via flickr (CC BY 2.0)

During off-times, at a long stoplight or in grocery store line, when the kids are restless and ready to argue for the sake of argument, I invite them to play the numbers game.

“Can you tell me how to get to twelve?”

My five year old begins, “You could take two fives and add a two.”

“Take sixty and divide it into five parts,” my nearly-seven year old says.

“You could do two tens and then take away a five and a three,” my younger son adds.

Eventually we run out of options and they begin naming numbers. It’s a simple game that builds up computational fluency, flexible thinking and number sense. I never say, “Can you tell me the transitive properties of numbers?” However, they are understanding that they can play with numbers.

photo by Mike Baird via flickr
photo by Mike Baird via flickr

I didn’t learn the rules of baseball by filling out a packet on baseball facts. Nobody held out a flash card where, in isolation, I recited someone else’s definition of the Infield Fly Rule. I didn’t memorize the rules of balls, strikes, and how to get someone out through a catechism of recitation.

Instead, I played baseball.

John Spencer
Memorizing Math Facts

Conversational Math

The best way for children to build mathematical fluency is through conversation. For more ideas on discussion-based math, check out these posts:

Learning the Math Facts

For more help with learning and practicing the basic arithmetic facts, try these tips and math games:


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World Maths Day 2013: Register Now

It’s time to register for World Maths Day, which will take place on March 6, 2013. Last year, more than five million students from all around the world combined to correctly answer nearly 500 million math problems.

Would you like to help break the record this year? Register now so you can practice in advance!

About World Maths Day

  • Play with students from schools all around the world. Individuals and homeschoolers are welcome, too.
  • The competition is designed for ages 4-18 and all ability levels. Teachers, parents and media can also register and play.
  • It’s simple to register and participate. Start practicing as soon as you register.
  • And best of all, it’s absolutely free.

Continue reading World Maths Day 2013: Register Now

How to Conquer the Times Table, Part 5

Lex times 11, by Dan DeChiaro, via flickr

Photo of Lex times 11, by Dan DeChiaro, via flickr.

We are finishing up an experiment in mental math, using the world’s oldest interactive game — conversation — to explore multiplication patterns while memorizing as little as possible.

Take your time to fix each of these patterns in mind. Ask questions of your student, and let her quiz you, too. Discuss a variety of ways to find each answer. Use the card game Once Through the Deck (explained in part 3)as a quick method to test your memory. When you feel comfortable with each number pattern, when you are able to apply it to most of the numbers you and your child can think of, then mark off that row and column on your times table chart.

So far, we have studied the times-1 and times-10 families and the Commutative Property (that you can multiply numbers in any order). Then we memorized the doubles and mastered the facts built on them. And then last time we worked on the square numbers and their next-door neighbors.

Continue reading How to Conquer the Times Table, Part 5

How to Conquer the Times Table, Part 4

photo by Karen via flickr

Photo of Miss Karen (and computer) times 3, by Karen, via flickr.

If you remember, we are in the middle of an experiment in mental math. We are using the world’s oldest interactive game — conversation — to explore multiplication patterns while memorizing as little as possible. So far, we have studied the times-1 and times-10 families and the Commutative Property (that you can multiply numbers in any order). Then we memorized the doubles and mastered the facts built on them.

Continue reading How to Conquer the Times Table, Part 4

How to Conquer the Times Table, Part 3

Javier times 4, by Javier Ignacio Acuña Ditzel via flickr

Photo of Javier times 4, by Javier Ignacio Acuña Ditzel, via flickr.

If you remember, we are in the middle of an experiment in mental math. We are using the world’s oldest interactive game — conversation — to explore multiplication patterns while memorizing as little as possible. Talk through these patterns with your student. Work many, many, many oral math problems together. Discuss the different ways you can find each answer, and notice how the number patterns connect to each other.

So far, we have mastered the times-1 and times-10 families and the Commutative Property (that you can multiply numbers in any order).

Continue reading How to Conquer the Times Table, Part 3

How to Conquer the Times Table, Part 2

Eeva times 6, by Eric Horst via flickr

Photo of Eeva times 6, by Eric Horst, via flickr.

The question is common on parenting forums:

My daughter is in 4th grade. She has been studying multiplication in school for nearly a year, but she still stumbles over the facts and counts on her fingers. How can I help her?

Many people resort to flashcards and worksheets in such situations, and computer games that flash the math facts are quite popular with parents. I recommend a different approach: Challenge your student to a joint experiment in mental math. Over the next two months, without flashcards or memory drill, how many math facts can the two of you learn together?

We will use the world’s oldest interactive game — conversation — to explore multiplication patterns while memorizing as little as possible.

Continue reading How to Conquer the Times Table, Part 2