Times tables finally start to add up

Seven eights a problem? There is hope, reports Jasper Gerard

Daily Telegraph | By Jasper Gerard | 12:00pm – 26 Nov 2010




Times tables finally start to add up


Car journeys in our family have long been dominated, not by the soothing strains of Classic FM, but by the age-old battle over times tables. Every journey ended with me banging my head on the steering wheel, offering through grinding gnashers: “What are seven eights? No, darling, it’s 56. Now chant it 10 times after me …”

Is it a girl thing? My daughter Emilia is pretty bright. By seven she was a voracious reader with a good vocabulary; yet her maths was often muddled. Which is a shame, as maths graduates earn significantly over the UK average – and a cool £5k more than English graduates – if the latest Complete University Guide is to be believed.

I couldn’t really dangle graduate salary tables in front of a seven-year-old. But I tried everything else. Shouting, obviously. Bribery, blackmail. Even patience.

To be fair, Emilia is hardly alone in struggling with maths. Lenny Henry touched on this in his Radio 4 programme earlier this year, What’s So Great About Maths? For many, there is something intrinsically terrifying about numbers.

We, thankfully, have found deliverance through Emma Jonas, a maths teacher and former headmistress who happened to live near us in Kent. Friends gave glowing testimonies about how she had coached their children through the 11-plus. Since then, her reputation has, well, multiplied to the power of 10: her book, Mrs J Rules, is selling well, and she looks like doing for maths what Supernanny did for the naughty step.

After a few lessons, Emilia is scarcely closer to becoming the next Alan Turing – or even Carol Vorderman – but she is (excuse boastful parental interlude) comfortably in the top half of her maths class – and top at times tables. As turnarounds go, this would be the equivalent of the England football team learning how to thread a pass.

Tables, according to Mrs J, are the building blocks of all maths. “Children often say they know their tables, but they are effectively counting. If they can give the answer instantly they can do more complicated sums such as imperfect fractions so much quicker. This transforms their results in exams for their entire school career,” she says.

The Jonas technique is to make tables fun. Yes, I, too, was sceptical. But I’ve just tried my six-year-old, Fred, out on “Mrs J’s Brilliant Tables Game”, and the remarkable thing is he actually begs to play it (normally he dodges work and soap with equal zeal).

“I know how important it is to engage the child because maths didn’t come easily to me either, and I would get a tummy ache before tables tests,” smiles Jonas, who became a teacher precisely because she couldn’t believe how badly she had been taught. “One school report said: ‘She has a cheerful disregard for learning the facts’.” Jonas turns table learning into a brightly coloured card game, which is multi-sensorial.

It really does seem to live up to its slogan: “warning: might make tables easy”. She calls her recent success a “miracle”, admitting that when she self-published her book even the printer reckoned she was wasting her time. “He said a lot of this will need to be recycled,” laughs Jonas, who has just added a book to make English easy.

As for maths, schools do seem to be dragging it from the dark days of blackboard horror. At his primary school (Chiddingstone, near Edenbridge), Fred is less likely to be found doing a sum on a board than counting virtual bubbles in a bath on a computer screen. The girls’ school Walthamstow Hall in Sevenoaks organises “maths races” between primary schools, where pupils from each compete to see who can do the most tables in a short time. For older children there are lectures explaining the maths of such disparate phenomena as clouds and lightning. Whisper it, but it actually sounds mildly interesting.

Oh, and it’s probably not a girl thing, apparently. A vast test by Brian Butterworth of University College London suggested that women are better at quantifying than men. Maths is, as Lenny Henry discovered, a teaching thing.

Table Tips



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