Yes, Kids Still Need to Memorize Their Times Tables

A thought experiment: imagine you’re the parent of a 3rd grader who’s sitting in a classroom setting out to solve the problem 358 x 27. As the other kids get to work, your child nervously looks around the room. Accurately remembering that the teacher started with the numbers in the ones column, they set to work on 7 x 8 - by drawing a row of 8 circles, then another row of 8 circles, then another row of 8 circles, then another row…

Feel that lump in your throat?

Your child isn’t just “behind.” They may never learn math at this rate.

And that’s not even the worst of it: your child is starting to think they’re stupid. Ever feel like that as a kid?

Okay, so I lied. This isn’t just a thought experiment. This kind of thing is all too real in all too many 3rd grade classrooms everywhere - and this exact thing happened with my granddaughter with this exact problem (7 x 8) when I began teaching her multi-digit multiplication in the middle of her 3rd grade year, once it became obvious to her parents that the classroom instruction she was receiving wasn’t working.

Now here’s an insane thing. There are educational experts out there - scores of them - who will tell you that since understanding is paramount, we shouldn’t be encouraging what they call “rote memorization” of multiplication facts at all. Proof that they’re wrong? The kid in this scenario does understand what 7 x 8 means; they drew a multiplication array that proves it! The thing that’s slowing the kid down isn’t a lack of understanding; it’s a lack of memorization!

What too many educational “experts” have missed is that memorization doesn’t prohibit understanding. (Why on Earth would it?) Fact is, without memorization, deep mathematical understanding isn’t possible at all.

“Whoa, whoa, whoa,” I can hear them say. “Memorization is essential for understanding?!” Yes, because math is far too complex to be comprehended without taking shortcuts! Think back to the scenario. If a kid draws an array for each of the five basic math facts involved in solving 358 x 27 (which must be performed regardless of the method the kid chooses to use), they’re counting on counting to get to the answer. Not only is this crazy inefficient, it begs the question of why the kid is being asked to learn multiplication at all. Multiplication, among other things, is a shortcut for repeated addition, and the memorization of multiplication facts is what makes it a shortcut!

The debate over “rote memorization” has to stop right here and right now. I’m no gambler (no underpaid teacher is), but I’d wager good money that every single one of the math “experts” who rail against memorization has their times tables memorized. Have they merely memorized them? Of course not! They can demonstrate conceptual understanding of each fact a gajillion different ways. But they’ve memorized them too.

Teach multiplication with number lines, skip counting, arrays, scaling, unit changes, and area models. Use any and all means to build solid conceptual understanding. Give students practice with both the standard and alternate algorithms. Do all of this and more - and they’ll still need to memorize all 100 basic multiplication facts. Why? Because all future math involving multiplication will grind to a standstill otherwise.

So you should break out the flash cards, right? Heck no. Can you imagine any slower way to get a room full of kids up to speed with all 100 multiplication facts? Especially when you consider that you have to multiply the number of facts by the number of students?

What should you do then? Absolutely nothing. It’s the kids’ job to learn their multiplication facts, not yours. (You already know your facts!)

Instead, just do what I do, and what more and more teachers and parents around the world are doing all the time: send them to They’ll pick up speed and accuracy with their times tables automatically by competing against the clock and their own past performance (and can even learn their facts from scratch with the new Basic Training feature) - and you’ll never again be stuck with the impossible task of trying to teach multi-digit multiplication (or higher math) to a kid who doesn’t know their times tables.

Need closure on my granddaughter's story? She started the year far below grade level, and after a steady diet of FactFreaks (which she became addicted to) and self-instructional activities I designed to build both conceptual understanding and procedural fluency (which I’ll discuss in future articles) she mastered multi-digit multiplication to the point of being asked to tutor other students. Crisis averted.

Please, please, please don’t ever let it get that far with your kid. Stress FactFreaks frequently to prevent stress in math class. And you don’t have to stress either - it’ll always be free.

Got a minute? Get them started right now! When it comes to mastering their times tables, there’s no time like the present!

Steve Hare

Math-Whisperer. Humanist.
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