Teaching Math Facts at 15
July 21, 2006 12:51 PM   Subscribe

My sweet son has many disabilities--type 1 diabetes, ADHD, depression. At 15, he just confessed with great pain that he doesn't know his multiplication tables very well. Explains a lot. Any really wonderful suggestions that don't infantilize and humiliate him. Ones that work? Any personal success stories and moral support will make me heart you.
posted by wordswinker to Education (51 answers total) 6 users marked this as a favorite
I wonder if a game like Brain Age (for the Game Boy DS) would help him out. There are at least two programs that deal only with simple math problems (add, subtract, multiply) that have helped me hone my rusty math skills. It's a game meant to help you with brain power overall, and all of the minigames are very quick. I've been playing it for just over a couple of weeks and I'm definitely faster at it.
posted by sugarfish at 12:57 PM on July 21, 2006

Not to jump to a clinical answer, but...

If he doesn't already have one, get him a tutor/councilor who specializes in learning disabilities. Not only will they be able to help him fill in the gaps of his knowledge in a supportive way, but they will also help him cope with life as someone with ADHD. Learning disabilities run rampant in my family, and I don't know how any of us (parents included) would have made it through with their experienced and patient help.
posted by samh23 at 12:59 PM on July 21, 2006

I know one for remembering the 9's by counting on your fingers. you hold your ten fingers out in front of you and count across for the number you're multiplying by, then put that finger down. Then you count the fingers on the left and the right of the finger that is down, and those are the two digits of the answer.

Example for 9 x 3: Put your third finger down. There are two fingers on the left of that finger, and seven on the right. The answer is 27.

9 x 1 has zero fingers on the left, 9 x 10 has zero fingers on the right.
posted by leapingsheep at 1:03 PM on July 21, 2006

I would second trying to find video games that incorporate math. They can make learning that kind of stuff considerably less painful, maybe even fun. I personally played number munchers, although at a younger age than your son (not much younger though). He might find that too childish, in which case you could shop around for something he'd like. That could be fun too ---you can collaborate to pick out a present that he likes.
posted by Humanzee at 1:07 PM on July 21, 2006

Best answer: Buy him a calculator?

I have to say I don't know my multiplication tables and never have. But I was able to get all the way through Multi-Variable Calculus in collage. Ironically it's only now that I really appreciate how handy it would be to be able to do arithmetic quickly in my head.

The way arithmetic is taught in the public school system is really terrible and sub-optimal. If anything I would recommend a book like this or this. They're written for adults and are meant to help people do arithmetic quickly in their heads -- that sort of thing will require a lot of rote memorization, though. I don't have any first-hand experience with this sort of thing though. I was already learning algebra at 15.
posted by delmoi at 1:16 PM on July 21, 2006 [1 favorite]

Best answer: Looks like someone made a new version of Number Munchers. Sweet!
posted by Faint of Butt at 1:19 PM on July 21, 2006

Mel Levine, All Kinds of Minds
posted by maloon at 1:19 PM on July 21, 2006

(On lack of preview, curse you, Humanzee, you hideous ape-man!)
posted by Faint of Butt at 1:19 PM on July 21, 2006

I know one for remembering the 9's by counting on your fingers.

The nines are really easy. The first digit is just the number you're multiplying minus one, followed by 10 minus that number 10*(N-1)+10-N. It's the rest of the table that's hard :P
posted by delmoi at 1:20 PM on July 21, 2006

Having spent a year as a science and math teacher at the high school level, I've seen first hand that your son's problem (unfortunately) isn't nearly as rare as you might think.

On a personal level, as a kid I found learning my multiplication tables terribly hard. What worked best for me was learning all the little tricks to the different tables. A google search on multiplication tables and tricks will get you started.

My favorite is the 9 times table trick - works for numbers 1-10.

to solve 9 times x

subtract 1 from x
this is the number in the tens place

subtract 9 from the number in the tens place
this is the number in the ones place




9*7 = 63

Math is all about knowing the rules and practicing them. See if your sons school has any applied math courses or interdisciplinary math and science programs - kids with math trouble tend to do very well in these types of classes.
posted by a22lamia at 1:21 PM on July 21, 2006

I was a lot like your son at 15, but my "shame" was (is) that I can't do addition and subtraction facts without using my fingers. Chalk it up to the ADD, the left-handedness, right-brainedness... I don't know. I cheated my way through math classes my whole life though, because my inability to add/subtract slowed me down a lot throughout math classes.

I've tutored a lot of young people (in math, I know, weird... but I am a good test prep instructor, although I suck at math), and not being fast with basic math facts is a lot more common than you'd think. Please let your son know that.

But back to me, I did learn my multiplication facts from School House Rock multiplication rock and drills in school. I've used School House Rock math DVDs with a lot of young people and seen some major successes.

Then at 17 I got a job where I had to make change from a register. I was slow at first, but during that time my addition and subtraction skills got a WHOLE LOT BETTER. That helped more than anything else.

I now still can't do addition or subtraction without using my fingers, but in day to day life I just use a calculator. It is sort of a joke between my boyfriend and I, but I try not to discuss it with other people very openly. In university I took non-math math classes for my math requirements -- a census class and a migration class, as I recall. So I survived life without math skills. Now I'm about to take a statistics class though. Everyone have your fingers crossed for me.

Oh, and I always assumed that people noticed, but now I've decided that they don't.
posted by k8t at 1:24 PM on July 21, 2006 [1 favorite]

That nine times table method works, but he might not want to hold his fingers up whenever he spots a nine in the sum. I use a more long winded method with my boys, but they're happy with it. It goes like this:

Me: What's 6 x 9?
Them: Ummm...
Me: Look, it's got a nine in it so it's easy. The answer starts with one less than the other number. It's SIX times nine so the answer starts with a five. Now the second part adds to five to make nine. That's four. Five, Four - Fifty four!
Them: (looks bemused initially)
Me: Come on, 9 x 8?
Them: (one less than 8...) Seventy (adds up to nine...) Two!

Now this might seem like a lot of thinking for a silly little multiplication but I'd rather do it this way. I use different methods for all of them, mostly rounding.

For example, for 8x7 I will usually do 8x8-8. I happen to know 8x8 (more in a moment) so it's easier for me to do that quick sum. I honestly think this has led to me having a better ability to do mental maths quickly.

I've never learned my times tables and I find that the difference between me and say my wife, who was forced to recite them parrot fashion, is that I am happy to apply my methods to more complex problems. Anything above 12x12 and the off-by-heart-gang's eyes glaze over. I'll work out 13x122 as happily as 8x7.

That's not to say I don't know some of them by heart. All the 2s, most of the 3s, all the fives are logged in my brain for some reason, as well as the squares. I now know the squares doubly so because that's where I am with my kids.

There's one more method I use you see. Imagery. I use it to remember lots of things (which I won't go into now) but it works great for some numbers. In short here's an example.

8 x 8? That's two snowmen, side by side. They have ten buttons between them but the snowman on the left is a bit taller than the one on the right. He has 6 and the other has 4: 64!

7x7? Two golf clubs sticking out of a golf bag. The par for the course you're on is 50 and you've just beaten it by one shot! 49!

It doesn't matter how ridiculous the story is, once it's in there it stays for ever.

I would say that Brain Training on the DSis a great tool - it does nice reversals within each round as well as other things (lots of pairs that all multiply to the same answer). However it is qite harsh so it might not be wise to dive straight into it.

Actually, thinking about it, I have a new method for 8x7 now thanks to one of my son's who spotted that 7x8=56: 5678! Make sure he gets the hang of knowing that the numbers can be swapped and he'll come up with his own tricks in no time.

Good luck.
posted by Glum at 1:27 PM on July 21, 2006

I second Humanzee's suggestion. Try a computer program or video game. Another website is http://www.iknowthat

He also may find this website too childish, but maybe not. I could probably learn something from these websites or refresh my memory, and I am 33 years old.

Like samh23 has said, I would try to shop around for a tutor that has experience with learning disabilities and/or ADHD. Maybe you could call around at places like Sylvan and ask if they have a teacher on staff that is an ESE teacher or understands ADHD, and could help your son with some refresher math. It may give him a boost of confidence before school starts again.
posted by LoriFLA at 1:29 PM on July 21, 2006

My brother had similar problems with rote math as a kid (he also had ADD and perhaps some other neurological problems.) When he was around 8-10 years old, I remember my mother playing "times table tapes" that set the times tables to music. Annoying, but they sure did work (in some cases too well---sometimes I couldn't get the songs out of my head). Similar products are available on CD via amazon. Unfortunately most of them are designed for younger children, so I can imagine a 15-year-old finding them somewhat condescending.

Therefore, I suggest instead the classic Schoolhouse Rock, which has similar catchy songs, visuals, and may have enough retro street cred that he won't find it demeaning.
posted by slenderloris at 1:31 PM on July 21, 2006

Me: What's 6 x 9?
Them: Ummm...
Me: Look, it's got a nine in it so it's easy. The answer starts with one less than the other number. It's SIX times nine so the answer starts with a five. Now the second part adds to five to make nine. That's four. Five, Four - Fifty four!
Them: (looks bemused initially)
Me: Come on, 9 x 8?
Them: (one less than 8...) Seventy (adds up to nine...) Two!

That is such a cool trick!
posted by LoriFLA at 1:32 PM on July 21, 2006

Best answer: He's likely learned to memorize: "four times four is sixteen" much like "the Lord is my Shepard" or "Coke is It".

(I learned this way too, I still recall it, because I hated it. But then, I'm good at remembering stuff. Too good, really.)

Instead, try explaining what multiplication really is, addiction multiple times. (Thus the words "multiplications" and "times"). This avoids any infantilization, and it he gets it, he'll end up being ahead of most of his rote-memorizing peers.

Two times four means 4 + 4 or 2 + 2 + 2 + 2 and it looks like this:

• • • •
• • • •

which is just

• •
• •
• •
• •

rotated 90 degrees.

The reason 4 * 3 + 4 = 4 * 4 is because 4 * 3 is just a convenient shorthand for adding three fours together:

• • • •
• • • •
• • • •

And adding four to that, is, well, just adding another four

• • • •

Of course, any arbitrary number of things can be shaped any arbitrary way. 4 * 3 can be:

• • • •
• • • •
• • • •


• • •
• • •
• • •
• • •


• • • • • • • • • • • •

The "trick" is finding the representation that's most useful to what you want to do.

A lot of math can be visualized, and should be. That it isn't in American schools isn't your son's fault.
posted by orthogonality at 1:33 PM on July 21, 2006 [2 favorites]

Best answer: If he's worried that not knowing his multiplication tables implies something negative about his intelligence, I have a friend who also never learned his times tables but has earned a physics degree from Caltech and is working on a physics PhD at MIT.
posted by clarahamster at 1:33 PM on July 21, 2006

flash cards worked for me--I don't know if that would work for your son. And also that 9 trick with the fingers mentioned above is quite helpful.
posted by clairezulkey at 1:36 PM on July 21, 2006

Best answer: I can't add much about how to teach multiplication -- it came naturally to me.

But, as someone who has ADHD and depression, I can help (I think) from another angle. Your son found it painful to admit he had a hard time at multiplication. Work on that, in addition to getting him on a good tutoring plan.

There's really nothing shameful about his situation. He's not stupid, lazy, etc., and the learning will go better if you can get that point across. People with ADHD, dyslexia, and other learning disabilities can, and do, achieve great things in life. He can too. Helping him realize this can really put him in a better situation to catch up on what he's missed.
posted by teece at 1:58 PM on July 21, 2006

posted by lilboo at 2:06 PM on July 21, 2006

48 and I never learnt them - and I now teach in a University (not maths...) A calculator has been my salvation for years
posted by A189Nut at 2:09 PM on July 21, 2006

more info in the wiki
posted by lilboo at 2:10 PM on July 21, 2006

Another it doesn't matter in the long-run story...

I never properly learnt my times tables. I moved schools just before my old started to teach them and just after my new one had. Later in my school career, I had times tables tests every Wednesday morning for two years that gave me nightmares, I got written off as being hopeless in maths, oh yeah, eventually I figured out that I wasn't that dumb, and I got a good result in A' level maths (last two years of high school if you don't know the UK) and I was two boxes on a form away from doing a degree in it.

When I was younger my Mum bought me books and computer games and sat down with me every night and tried to help me learn them by rote. None of that really helped. Different people learn things in different ways, and I have to understand things. It wasn't until I was doing my A' level that I started to understand what's going on with multiplication, and then they became easier to learn.

And being good at mental arithmetic helps at A' level, so I put some effort into learning them.

But I still don't really know them. I use lots of different ways to get me there, sometimes tricks like the ways to learn the nines. But a lot of the time I have to go back to a sum I know and add or subtract till I get there. So if someone asks me 8x7 I stare blankly until I've added two 8s to 40. That's how I work.

Your son will have to find the way that suits him best, whether that's putting in the leg work and just memorising them all, or using tricks, or visualising like orthogonality's grids, or something else.

I think that there's a self-esteem thing here as well. Not knowing your times tables, can mark you out. It's something it's assumed you know. Help and encourage him, if he wants to learn. So, when the teacher's going through some complicated equation, and skips quickly through the part where 56 is 8x7, your son's still there with them. It'll mean he can start understanding the processes that are involved rather than just the numbers.
posted by Helga-woo at 2:26 PM on July 21, 2006

orthogonality has it. Some people are visual learners, and writing "8 x 8 = 64" on the blackboard will royally fuck things up for visual learners. Why? Numbers are representational; remove their symbolic attributes and they are just abstract squiggles.

The dots will take you as far as you need to go. Example:
. . . .
. . . .
. . . .
. . . .
What does this look like to you? The number four, up down and sideways. In fact the pattern of dots has a shape - a square. Count the number of dots: 16. Add up the number of dots in each row: 4, 8, 12, 16. Add up the number of dots in each column: 4, 8, 12, 16.

Now try this:
. . . . . .
. . . . . .
. . . . . .
. . . . . .
What does this look like? A rectangle. Why is it different from a square? One side is longer. That's right - there are 6 across and 4 down. Count the number of dots: 24. Add up the number of dots in each row: 6, 12, 18, 24. Add up the number of dots in each column: 4, 8, 12, 16, 20, 24.

That's basic stuff. Now, suppose instead of 4 x 4, or 6 x 4, you want 327 x 605. We could do this with dots, but we don't need to once we understand how to conceptualize blocks of powers of 10. From there it's literally two months of intensive study to freshman calculus. Seriously - watch Stand and Deliver, it's a true story.
posted by Saucy Intruder at 2:46 PM on July 21, 2006 [1 favorite]

hmm, my pre tags got munged - but you get the idea
posted by Saucy Intruder at 2:47 PM on July 21, 2006

I had to memorise them, I enver could actually understand them. My 2nd grade teacher was kind of old school and made us chant them for about an hour every day. My third grade teacher was young and thought that was bosh. End result: I still can't do division but I know those times table inside out.

For us non-math types there is a LOT to be said for repetition and memorisation.
posted by fshgrl at 3:02 PM on July 21, 2006

First of all, make sure he is as comfortable as possible.

Secondly, draw a 10 X 10 grid.

Multiplication is really just a shortcut for addition. 9 X 3 = 9 + 9 + 9. Explain that, makes it less intimidating. Start with the 0's...easy...then the 1's...easy.

Then go to 10's. If the table he knows doesn't have 10's thats ok. 10's introduce the concept of addition to get the multiplication. It's simple, just add 10 each time. Fill out from left to right then from top to bottom, "just add 10 to it" principle.

Then go to the 5's, they are a little more difficult. Fill out from left to right. Then show how 5 X 1 = 1 X 5, 5 X 3 = 3 X 5, etc. That's very important in the math world. That means he only has to do half the work.

Then go to the 2's

Then go to the 3's

Keep going, using addition to fill in the table. DO NOT USE A CALCULATOR.

Time is of the essence here, he will loose you after a while, but make sure to get the table completed in one sitting. I would recommend doing this a few times, filling out the table. Eventually, he'll be able to fill in the blanks by memory.

Then go to the flashcards, don't let him use the table but give him some paper to do the adding if he needs.

Now that's a lot of work. He might deserve a reward aftwerwards.
posted by jeff_w_welch at 3:07 PM on July 21, 2006

Another datapoint here for the 'times-tables-aren't-the-be-all-and-end-all' crowd.

I got through a theoretical physics degree at Cambridge, and I still am completely incapable of multiplying anything involving 6, 7 or 8 in my head. And I frequently look at my hands to remember left and right (left hand looks like an 'L' for left!). By primary school standards I'm a dunce.

It's cool if you can manage to learn these things, but you can still be an amazing person without them.
posted by chrismear at 3:10 PM on July 21, 2006

*heh* I generally just go with "What's 6 x 9? Hm. 6 x 10 is 60, so minus 6, and that's 54." I've never been able to do it any other way. It basically means I only know my multiplication tables to about... oh, 4, if I'm lucky. Basically, 7, 8 and 9 get the old 10 times minus treatment. :) But then again, I'm a math idiot, so... Always have been.
posted by smallerdemon at 3:15 PM on July 21, 2006

Not really knowing your times tables at 15 isn't really anything to be ashamed of, I'm 32 and I'm not great at them - I can multiply in my head but it usually goes something like `7 times 8? Well, 5 8's are 40, two are 16, that means it's 56'. I certainly was never able to memorize tables like some people seem to do.

I'm better at quick `head maths' than my partner who has two highly technical degrees, but if it's anything beyond addition / subtraction / multiplication / division, I bow to her knowledge of how to do it.
posted by tomble at 3:22 PM on July 21, 2006

I am not certain if this is still for sale, as I got it at a yard sale, but I have a Cuisenaire Home Mathematics Kit made by Learning Games, Inc. It has a bunch of wooden blocks that are in units of one to ten. It also has teaching worksheets that walk you through the basics of addition (same and different) to exponents and powers. It engages tactile & visual (the blocks are color coded.) If your son needs a different appoach by engaging more senses, this might help. I got it for my kids who are still very young because I recall the difficulties that I had with all math and the inability of my parents to be able to explain things differently than what my school books said.

wife of 445supermag
posted by 445supermag at 4:24 PM on July 21, 2006

I would also advocate Factoring

I learned this in 6th grade summer school for math

reduce any number to its factors and multiply those

3 X 16 is really 3 X 2 X 2 X 2

5 X 12 is really 5 X 3 X 4

once you learn the basic factors everything else is pretty easy
posted by Megafly at 4:31 PM on July 21, 2006


I went to a fairly up-market elementary school... :-)

I remember those things working well; I, too, am visual.
posted by baylink at 4:34 PM on July 21, 2006

The book Mind Performance Hacks from O'Reilly has a whole chapter on math tricks (including variants of the 9 trick, and a bunch of finger-counting tricks) that could be helpful.
posted by matildaben at 4:48 PM on July 21, 2006

Another 30-something with an advanced degree, but can't recite times tables, here. He will be fine, but a tutor would probably help to alleviate panicky feelings about math which can do more damage than actual slow math skills.

I know a few key points that stuck in my head for some reason, and basically do as smallerdemon described for the rest.

Another trick for mental math, when adding columns of numbers (which multiplication can turn into if you look at it the right way): break things down into units of 10. Units of 10 are really easy to add. For example if you have to add:

26 +

Look at the ones column, trying to make groupings that add up to 10. Here, 4+6=10 and 3+7=10. So we have 20 in the ones column; we'll write down the 0 and carry the 2 over. In the tens column we have 3+7=10 and 9+2+2=10+3. So we have 23 in the tens column. So the answer is 230.

Here's an example of using this instead of multiplying. Suppose we are asked, what's 8x8? Begin with 8+8+8+8 +8+8+8+8. We figure out that the basic unit here is 8+8 = 16. Then we add:

16 +

Maybe that seems like a lot of adding, but again we will just look for 10s. We look at the ones column. 6+6=10+2 and we have two of these. So we have 10+10+4 =24 in the ones column. Write down the 4 and carry the 2 over. The tens column is easy, 4+2=6.

Seems to me the main thing is for him to get past the feeling of "I'm a failure because I don't know them by heart", and experiment until he finds a way to break down the problem that works for him.
- memorize the tables, with flash cards or songs or filling in the grid or whatever
- memorize a few tricks, like the 9s trick
- use the dot grids (awesome!) as an easier way to conceptualize it
- remember the small end of the table, and do addition or subtraction of those smaller units as many times as needed for a given problem (the method I use).
posted by LobsterMitten at 5:05 PM on July 21, 2006

The way I learned all my tables was by ...mere trite repetition.

Don't discount repeating the tables by having a copy of them in front of you like




and so on. While I am typing these for you I am not actually doing any "calculation" , I just remember them because I repeated them (in k12) maybe a thousand times ?
I don't know anything about ADHD , except that people with ADHD apparently can't concentrare on a task....a trick is to have the person talk alout and not just read the tables..

Gradually he will remember tables, it is not an instant achievement, but gradually..one shouldn't feel embarassed about needing to train memory more then others...the objective is NOT (really) to remember tables, but to train trite memory and take advantage from knowing the tables. PERSISTENCE here is obviously the key.
posted by elpapacito at 5:08 PM on July 21, 2006

I'm going to nth flash cards.

Start with 2x1, 2x2, 2x3...and once he can get all of that down, then add 3s. Once he can get the 3s, add the 4s...etc.

Let him make up his own visual tricks for remembering.
posted by hooray at 5:12 PM on July 21, 2006

I don't have any real advice for you for now, but as a personal aside, I have ADHD (not dx until I was 37), major clinical depression and at almost 40 I still don't know my multiplication tables very well and forget long division.

However, I hold a responsible job as a property manager in a national company and a good part of my day is accounting-I'm actually really good at it and my math phobias and SLD when it comes to math hasn't hindered me at all-so, while it's really really rough now, chances are he'll be more than just fine as an adult.
posted by hollygoheavy at 5:19 PM on July 21, 2006

I still don't know my times tables very well, and I'm 26 and have a masters degree. Tell him he's not dumb, and that math is just hard for some people.

That said, I did learn some formulas a cool way. My dad had me write the ones I was having lots of trouble with on a sheet of posterboard. Then he had me color them with bold colors and decorate them. Then we hung it over my bed so I could look at it frequently. I memorized the whole thing as a picture in my head rather than a mathematical fact. This might work well if your son has a strong visual memory like I do.
posted by christinetheslp at 5:41 PM on July 21, 2006 [1 favorite]

Tell him he's not dumb, and that math is just hard for some people.

Amen to that. I can barely add up, let alone multiply numbers, and it has no impact whatsoever on my life (except I always have pockets full of change because it's easier to break a note than stand in a shop for ten minutes trying to count out coins!).

Obviously if your son is fretting about this, and for some reason needs to know his times tables (no one asked me about them past primary school, thanks to calculators), the tips above sound great, if completely bewildering. But he might be destined to struggle with maths forever, and I'd say you should make it clear that that isn't necessarily a big problem.

Also, all the people I know who are seriously crap with numbers are good with words. If that's the case with your son, it might be worth trying to channel the energy he's wasting on worrying about basic maths into working on his English lit., modern languages, &c. - if he's already more confident in that area, shifting his focus further can be no bad thing.
posted by jack_mo at 6:55 PM on July 21, 2006

When I was a child, I had a bulky plastic toy that had ten plastic handles attached to sliders on each side, to form a 10x10 grid. Pull the marked sliders back, and it would reveal the solution to the multiplication problem underneath. I pull back 6 on one side, and 5 on the other, the square underneath would show 30. Worked well for visual learning or memorization. If I knew what it was called, I'd suggest it as an aid.

Between ADHD and the difficulty of admitting his struggles, it's very easy to become discouraged. As a former math tutor myself, I noticed two things that determined success. The right approach for how someone thinks, and raw determination. Be sure to spend as much time with him on math as he's willing to put in. It will help immeasurably.
posted by Saydur at 7:14 PM on July 21, 2006

Check out Number Freaking by Gary Rimmer.

The key to success in math is practice, and the key to practicing is making it fun. This book is page after page of entertaining story problems, answering such questions as:

How many people on Earth are drunk right now?
If you were falling from the world's tallest building, would you have time to phone a friend to say goodbye?
Which is more crowded: Jakarta, an IKEA store or Hell?
posted by selfmedicating at 8:40 PM on July 21, 2006 [3 favorites]

FWIW, I learned them through memorization. I can recall them very quickly, because it's all but hard-wired in my brain now. Practice enough, and you'll never forget.

I do, however, very much like Saucy Intruder's suggestion. I came to the conclusion, many math courses ago, that very few students in higher math courses truly grasp the concepts, as opposed to learning how to do the problems by example. It's incredibly important to solve problems with earlier 'gaps' in learning. (Try discussing integrals when half the class doesn't understand how slope is calculated.)

IANATeacher, but I like the idea of starting with the basics like Saucy Intruder suggests, but also encouraging memorization. The only real way to learn, IMHO, is copious practice. Have him set aside, say, 15 or 20 minutes twice a day to practice. (Back when I learned my times tables, we did something called "Mad Minutes," where we were given a sheet of problems and completed as many in 60 seconds as possible. We also had tapes with a 'rap' song of the times tables, although your son would probably find that too embarassing.)

I like sugarfish's answer about BrainAge, although I'd caution you that it could go either way. I love BrainAge because it helps me stay sharp, and the quiz where you do calculations is one of my favorites. However, when I miss problems, I very quickly get discouraged, and start to slow down and think about what I'm doing wrong, which makes me slip up even worse.

I'll second (third? fourth? tenth?) what others said, though: in higher courses, it really won't be a big deal. I see it as a failing of schools, really, but it's now at the point where I'll have two numbers that I need to add, and use my calculator. (Actually, this might be somewhat apropos to your situation: the reason I use a calculator is 'just to make sure,' even if there's no way I could be wrong. On exams, I've been known to use a calculator for things like 6+7, just to be 100% sure I had it right.)

I'm split on whether or not to suggest that you talk to his teacher. On one hand, I think it's important that (s)he be involved, and (s)he might know better than any of us how to help. OTOH, your son might feel betrayed. Perhaps seeking a tutor is a smart move.

Hope these ramblings help somehow.
posted by fogster at 9:08 PM on July 21, 2006

I just want to say I find it really strange that so many people actually spent so much time trying to memorize this as kids. At no point in my education was it ever stressed, at all. We were taught to do long-hand multiplication at some point, which I don't remember how to do.

Yeah as other people pointed out you can lead a successful life, even get a PhD in a math-heavy field like theoretical physics without being able to do it. In the real world he'll never be far from a calculator.
posted by delmoi at 9:26 PM on July 21, 2006

I do, however, very much like Saucy Intruder's suggestion. I came to the conclusion, many math courses ago, that very few students in higher math courses truly grasp the concepts, as opposed to learning how to do the problems by example. It's incredibly important to solve problems with earlier 'gaps' in learning. (Try discussing integrals when half the class doesn't understand how slope is calculated.)

That's the thing though, the times table isn't a 'concept' it's just a bunch of memorization. In fact, it would be far more handy to memorize the product of all pairs of the first ten prime numbers then the first ten digits. Why do you need to know 8*3 if you know what 2*2 and 2*3 are?

I understand the concept of multiplication, (and it's not a 'shortcut for multiple addition', that will only work with natural numbers). I can program a computer or even built a circuit to do it for me (it's much easier in binary, by the way. Much smaller table :)
posted by delmoi at 9:32 PM on July 21, 2006

tell that that its 2006 and you dont need to memorize your tables anymore. we have calculators and PCs. get him a TI-85. many people struggle with useless memorization. he is not alone. once he gets into college, he'll need a calculator, a pda and a laptop to live...
posted by Davaal at 10:44 PM on July 21, 2006

Response by poster: Incredible responses, all! Thank you so much. He is being tutored by a Harvard-bound valedictorian, but they're focusing on study skills and test strategies. He's much too embarrassed to admit such a gap to this kid, and has decided to apply a newfound work ethic to the problem, devoting 15 minutes a day to the ones he can't roll of his tongue.

It's also good to know how many have led quite successful lives with this gap. As always, MeFiFolk are generous and thoughtful.

Thank you ever so much!
posted by wordswinker at 12:32 AM on July 22, 2006

There's also Timez Attack, a multiplication-based dungeon crawl game.
posted by craniac at 7:56 AM on July 22, 2006

i dont know why diabetes was mentioned, i dont know whether its you or him that is worried about how many disabilities he has, but my situation was that i thought i had ADD but really it was just depression (which makes you unable to concentrate). he'll feel a ton better about himself if he can learn his multiplication tables (kind of the equivalent of 'mommy look! i can do it all by myself!'). the answer that worked for me was kumon math which uses drills. drills you over and over simple arithmetic until you know the answers without having to think, which is a good place to be for higher maths so you dont get bogged down with the smaller calculations required to solve problems.
as far as diagnoses of various problems, always look for the simplest answer. the simple answer is always that you dont really have half the problems you think you have and that that simple solution that you didnt think would solve things really would if you would give it a chance...
posted by GleepGlop at 8:26 AM on July 22, 2006

dear wordswinker,
You're doing a great parenting job.

I know someone that has finished head of her class at an Ivy League, is currently an up and coming investment banker and she still doesn't know her multiplication tables and she barely learned how to tell time from a mechanical watch a few years back.

The most important aspect is having great parents who will love you, support you and prove to you time and time again that you're brilliant.

Heck, Einstein couldn't tie his shoes until he was what, 13 years old?
posted by ruelle at 11:50 PM on July 22, 2006

As one also afflicted with diabetes, I can only imagine how difficult it must be to maintain good control without quick mental math... Is he on an insulin pump? And if not, is it a possibility? While nothing is automatic, newer models have wizards to correct for insulin:carb ratios and correction factors--they also let you know how much insulin remains on board, so you can adjust. Tight control will do wonders for his other two "afflictions," in my experience.

Good luck.
posted by zachxman at 1:28 PM on July 23, 2006

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