Overview: You don’t want your kid to hate math for the rest of their life. Here’s what to do about it. It may be a simpler fix than you think.
“Do I have to do math today?”
You know you’ve heard this. In that whiny voice with the drawn-out words. Like doing math is the equivalent of being stretched on the rack or worse. Or eating peas.
I can almost guarantee that the child who is saying it has one particular characteristic. There are other reasons out there, but my pretty-close-to-an-expert opinion is that this one cause is the main one, the most widespread – and it’s a simple fix.
I used to teach middle school math in a public school system outside of Dallas, TX. I also taught in a small Christian school in California. I’ve recently subbed for our local Classical Conversations community at various middle and high school levels. And I’ve homeschooled FIVE children from kindergarten on –
three four of whom have graduated from our high school.
And here’s what I’ve noticed: by a large margin, the kids who hate math generally have one thing in common – they don’t know their multiplication facts.
Now, before you say “I know mine does” and close this window, take a moment to test your child. Ask them three random multiplication facts and SEE HOW LONG IT TAKES THEM TO ANSWER.
If it takes longer than 2-3 seconds for them to come up with a response, even if what they eventually say is correct, then they don’t KNOW their multiplication tables. And here’s the deal: it’s that constant having to think about what 9 x 6 is that is causing your child to not enjoy math. Or at least to enjoy it less.
The kids who love math, or at least tolerate it, are the ones who know their multiplication tables so well that they don’t have to think about them. Like at all. Like it takes less than two seconds (or even less than ONE second) to come up with an answer to each and every fact. Through the 12’s.
And one of the things I want you to realize is that this is a COMMON problem. We present the multiplication facts somewhere around third grade, and we do flashcards for a little while, but we don’t ever strive for mastery. It’s easier to give them a chart to look at. And in third grade that’s OK.
But not for long.
They will begin having difficulty pretty much as soon as whatever curriculum they’re using moves on from multiplication of 1-digit numbers to 2-digit multiplication. And then after that comes division, hello.
And then somewhere around 8th grade or soon thereafter, they are going to start algebra. And after that geometry and trigonometry. And if they don’t have their multiplication tables DOWN, they are going to struggle.
It’s like music. If you are trying to learn piano and you never bother to master the notes on the staff, how well would you do? Every note you play you have to figure out by saying Every Good Boy Does Fine and counting up and down the lines. That would get frustrating fast, wouldn’t it? In order to get to the point of playing piano well, you need to memorize the notes on the staff so you can find them on the keyboard without thinking about it. So you can go on to learn pieces that are more complicated than “Twinkle, Twinkle.”
The multiplication facts are just as important to math as the notes on the staff are to music. And there is no cop-out like there could potentially be in music – “I don’t read music; I just play by ear.” Well, good for you. But there is no “playing by ear” in math.
A calculator? You ask. Why do they have to know their multiplication tables when they can just use a calculator?
The problem with relying on a calculator for basic multiplication is they will be slowed WAY DOWN when doing just about EVERYTHING ELSE in the study of mathematics that comes after those pesky facts.
Here is just a sampling of the topics that depend on the multiplication tables:
–multiplication of 2- and 3-digit numbers and decimal numbers
–least common multiple and greatest common factor
–adding and subtraction fractions
–converting between improper fractions and mixed numbers
–word problems involving distance, rate, and time
–word problems involving money, tax, interest
–area, volume, surface area
–solving systems of equations
–factoring quadratic expressions
–graphing linear equations
–equivalent and similar triangles
–um, and basically all of trigonometry, matrices, and anything more complex like calculus, hello
If your kid is struggling with adding fractions, I bet they don’t know their multiplication facts. If they are confused by similar triangles, I bet they don’t know their multiplication facts. If they detest percents — you guessed it — I bet they don’t know their multiplication facts.
When a child KNOWS their multiplication facts, to the point of not having to think about them anymore, then their brain is CLEARED OUT and ready to learn and process more complex mathematical concepts. Having to think about math facts uses valuable brain space and hinders them from easily learning anything further. Every new idea becomes a tiresome chore, because so many preliminary steps involving multiplication facts have to be gotten through first.
Can a kid learn to run without having walking down to the point that it’s just automatic? It would be difficult, wouldn’t it?? Why do we get that about physical things but not about math?
Does YOUR kid hate math for this reason? Find out.
So here is my challenge to you: Find your kid and test their multiplication facts. Time how long it takes them to answer. The goal is 1 second or less, y’all. If they can’t do most facts that quickly, then it’s time to stop plodding through math lessons for a week and instead LEARN those buggers.
Trust me when I tell you that it will not be a wasted week!!! There are four possibilities for what might happen:
1) Your kid will find ALL of math much more easy and enjoyable when they can readily use those multiplication facts without hesitation. All of a sudden they will be completing their lessons much more quickly. Which means they will make up that “wasted” time and probably even surpass it in very short order. Woot!
2) Your kid will still dislike math. But at least it will be easier for them. It might take time for them to decide it’s not so bad after all. They’ve gotten used to hating it, and they might not be willing to give that up just yet. :-) But you will have removed one of the big roadblocks, and now you can just focus on attitude.
3) Your kid will still have trouble with math. OK, but at least now you’ve eliminated one of the biggest reasons and can look for other concepts that are difficult for them. They may have missed several along the way, especially if they have gotten into middle school or high school without the solid multiplication facts to help them understand the rest.
4) Your kid will have huge difficulty learning the facts themselves. AH. This would be an indicator that there might be other things that need to be addressed. Because learning the facts is just memorization — so trouble memorizing might mean a learning disability of some sort. I’m not an expert on those, so don’t get mad at me or call me out on this. But now you know you might want to look further for help.
Here’s what Bethany at Math Geek Mama has to say about it: “As a former Algebra teacher, I feel like confidence and fluency with basic facts such as the multiplication tables is essential. As the math gets more complex, it’s discouraging to kids when they get hung up on simple computations. It makes the problem more difficult than it needs to be. Spend the time while they’re young learning the facts and it will surely pay off in the upper grades.“
And here’s a quote from an upcoming book by Pam Barnhill (which I am editing, and it is AMAZING): “Memorizing moves things to long-term memory where the storage space is much larger, and there it can stay until we need it. This is why the nemesis of most fifth graders is long division. This is not because long division is so terribly complicated, but instead it is because this is the very first time a student must use all four operations — addition, subtraction, multiplication, and division — in order to solve one problem. That’s quite a few processes going on in the brain at one time. Students with instant recall of their math facts struggle much less, if at all. Students without the facts memorized have to use up valuable short-term memory space remembering facts instead of remembering processes for long division. Is it any wonder that they struggle so?“
See what I mean??? By now I hope I have you fairly well convinced. So then comes the next obvious question:
How to learn the multiplication facts?
You can find a gazillion games and worksheets and other ideas by doing a Pinterest search. I probably have several on my Homeschool Happiness board.
Mostly it’s just a matter of repetition, focusing on one number at a time and gradually adding on. To me, flashcards and a timer are the easiest thing to do. The flashcards can be shuffled after every use, with a couple new ones added each time. And the timer is there to provide a goal to shoot for.
UPDATE: There is a resource that uses this technique — starting with the facts for one number and then gradually adding on — that I just found out about. It looks AMAZING! It’s called Multiplication Facts that Stick (referral link) and you can get it from Amazon for not that much money. It has scripted lessons to teach your kid how to discover the facts for themselves using a special dot-array technique — plus all the practice pages, review activities, and games your child will need to CONQUER those pesky facts!
There are also others in the series: Addition Facts that Stick, Subraction Facts that Stick, and Division Facts that Stick (all referral links). Start where your kid needs help most — they’re ALL important!
One final note: skip counting is NOT enough. At some point the child needs to be able to produce the answer to 3 x 7 without having to progress through 3-6-9-12-15-18-21 first. The best way to break away from that is to present the 3’s facts in random sequence, changing the order each time, WITH A TIMER, until the child knows them all by heart.
Dare I say the dreaded word? MEMORIZATION. Sometimes ya just gotta do it.
I’ve also got a few more resources I can point you to right here: :-)
Susan Evans at SusanEvans.org talks about “overlearning.” I hadn’t heard the term before, but now I realize that it is exactly what I am talking about! Read her ideas for doing it here: Fun Ways to Overlearn Math.
Heidi at Starts at Eight has an entire list of links with activities for teaching multiplication facts: Resources for Learning Multiplication Tables.
This Multiplication Card Game at Math Geek Mama sounds like a lot of fun!
If your kid likes Legos (and young or old, they ALL do!), then this activity to Teach Multiplication with Lego Brick Grouping Boards by Renée at Great Peace Academy may be just the ticket. This is more for becoming familiar with the tables than memorizing them, but every little bit helps!
Another way to use manipulatives to explore the tables is in this post by Crystal Wagner: How to Build Multiplication Tables to Master Multiplication and Division Facts. Again, I would say that this is a great way to begin to use them, but eventually the manipulatives have to be done away with and instant recall must be worked on.
The multiplication facts are the cornerstone of higher math. Don’t let your child struggle or hate math for even one more day. Get off that train that says the lessons must move forward, and instead take the time to drill and test, rinse and repeat, until the memorization has occurred. You will not regret it!
You might also enjoy reading:
- Episode 81: Communicating with Teenagers - July 1, 2022
- Episode 80: Gena Mayo Shares Her Best Advice for Homeschooling High School - June 17, 2022
- Episode 79: Granting Autonomy to Your Homeschooled Teen - June 3, 2022