Times tables, retrieval practice, and what I’ve learned from Y3

My son and I have just made a major breakthrough with his times tables. I think it’s taught me something about retrieval practice that I hadn’t appreciated before.

My son attends a lovely school, as far as I can tell his teachers are great, and he was “working at greater depth” across his KS1 assessments (though I believe it was quite tight for writing). He is a boy who would rather be tearing around outside or playing a noisy board game than doing something calm and studious like colouring or reading but he was one of the first children in his peer group capable of sitting still through a film at the cinema, safely crossing roads, and getting to school on his own.  He was widely considered to be the noisiest baby anyone had ever come across – babbling and shouting away to himself, with or without an audience, and he rarely stops talking now, but seems to have good self-control at school and his teachers always describe him as thoughtful, co-operative, and responsive to feedback. At home, I have to say it’s sometimes more like rude, obstinate, and apparently deaf, but he is a great little boy and I’m very proud of him.

He seemed to pick up counting and basic number sense pretty easily, one more, one less, place value, number bonds, adding and subtracting 10, counting in 2s, 5s and 10s and coin values from the bits of practice we were asked to do at home. However, in contrast to the quick grasp of the 2, 5, and 10 times tables, 3 and 4 seemed to be difficult. He could manage them in order but random – no. Now, I know almost nothing about teaching or learning any of this, and although I can see that 3 and 4 lack the same patterns as 5 and 10, I don’t know if they really are a lot harder. Regardless, he didn’t seem to be getting them, and he seemed to be getting frustrated, so I thought it would be a good idea to make a concerted effort to support him. I didn’t think this would be very hard. Surely a brief daily (spaced) practice, interleaving 3s and 4s, would soon crack it. But nay! It was like herding cats.

Each day, he would remember some and forget others. 1x, 10x and 11x were okay, and usually 5x but the others came and went. Even more frustrating, if he got stuck on say, 7×3, I would give him the answer and then do maybe 10×3, 7×3, 11×3, 7×3, 5×3, 7×3, 2×3, 7×3 and he would still be no more likely to get 7×3 on the last go than the first, however many times it had been “21”. Sometimes 7×3 would be good for a few days, then gone again, like a fart in a car. What was going on. “Hold your nerve” I said, to myself. “It’s just practice, it’ll come” I said to him. But after about a month, it still hadn’t. So I had a re-think.

If he wasn’t getting it, maybe it needed simplifying. We put a hold on the 4 times table and just did 3s. No joy. What was the problem? Maybe still not simple enough, so I tried just doing 1×3, 2×3, 3×3 and 4×3. And we finally cracked it! He got those four to a pretty automatic level in two or three days – it may have been faster but I needed to see it hold to know. Then 5×3, 6×3, 7×3, 8×3, with three of those having been a problem for a month. No problem now. Then the last four multiples and within just over a week we were there – the whole table completely at random with speed and accuracy. The 4 times table took another week or so, even with practice on the 3s to get in the way, and now we’re on to 6s.

Even better, it was like pulling teeth even to get him doing just a few minutes each day, and now, whilst he would certainly rather be playing Crossy Road, he is a lot more amenable to the whole thing.

It’s not perfect yet. If he isn’t fully concentrating then he has a tendency to give answers like 6×4=18 through paying more attention to the 6 than the 4 but it’s continuing to improve, even as we get stuck in to 6s, and I’m pretty confident we will have them all completely solid by the end of Y3, and maybe sooner.

So what have I learned? With retrieval practice it seems that biting off too large a number of items to learn can, at least for my son, prevent any of them from sticking. And when it doesn’t work quickly, don’t hold your nerve; reduce the number of items until some success is experienced. I have no idea how that relates to the evidence on retrieval practice – will have to ask or do some more reading.

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