Learning tables is a key part of primary school life – most of us parents can remember chanting them out at school even if we can't always recall the answers – and when the new primary education curriculum comes into force (by September 2014) even greater emphasis will be placed upon them. Currently children are expected to know up to 10x10 by the age of 11. The requirement will become up to 12x12 by the age of nine.
For many children and parents though the experience is an ordeal. As the mother of an eight-year-old times table phobic son I know this through bitter experience.
So how important is it that children know them all by heart – and what are the best ways to help them achieve that?
Rob Eastaway, co-author of Maths for Mums and Dads, a best-selling book which shows parents how maths is taught in today's primary schools and how to support their children's learning, is in no doubt that a sound knowledge of tables is important.
"If primary children don't have a way of quickly knowing that 3x7 = 21 then they are going to seriously struggle with secondary school maths," he says. "Yes there are calculators, but resorting to that every time you face a simple multiplication is time-consuming. So I regard a knowledge of times tables as an essential skill."
There are however, he explains, lots of ways to instil that knowledge – so a child that does not respond to simply chanting them out has plenty of other options.
Different children learn in different ways. Old-fashioned chanting worked for me, but doesn't work for all.
"And remember, since those chants don't rhyme 'seven eights are fifty four' sounds just as convincing as 'seven eights are fifty six'.
"A bit of testing is good but learning playfully is often more productive. You could try a times tables CD or games (Perfect Times for example).
"Also try to use informal calculations when you and your child are out and about, so they can see that times tables relate to the real world."
"Make sure that your children understand how the tables work too so that they apply in either direction – that 3x8 equals 8x3 for example. That way they know they only need to learn half of them."
Trying to give children a context for their numeracy is also the method favoured by NRICH, a Cambridge University department aimed at helping teachers, policy makers and parents develop children's mathematical learning. NRICH is involved in the new curriculum development.
Liz Woodham, their Primary coordinator explains that while learning tables is very important, it is also key that children are not totally put off maths by the pressure to do so.
"If children are fluent with their tables there is no doubt that will help them in maths. The danger though is that maths is portrayed as only being about arithmetic. We want children to become little mathematicians, to think in mathematical ways not just to know something by rote.
"Times tables are an important element but not the be all and end all, and children that are frightened of having to memorise things must be supported."
She suggests that developing strategies to work out answers can also work. "So if you have a sound understanding of the number system and you don't know 9x9 you will know to take 9 away from 90."
She says parents should not panic if their children are struggling to recall their tables and certainly not too early on.
"I think that by the end of primary they should know them but try not to demoralise the child. Actually quite a lot of mathematicians claim to be bad at arithmetic. Letting a child know that they can use their skills to work them out boosts their confidence and means they don't panic if they can't remember."
Like Rob Eastaway, Liz Woodham advises trial and error with rhymes, apps and whatever else might help, and playing lots of numerical games together so that maths seems fun. She suggests nim strategy games - of which there are lots on the NRICH website.
"The other thing is not to project any fear of maths you may have. In this country we tend to wear it as a badge of honour but it is important not to show this to your child," she cautions.
The notion that children may be held back by not having instant recall is one which Alison Cantlay, a year 6 teacher in South London, supports.
"It is a big problem when my class don't know them because long multiplication and division rely on them. We found many were struggling beyond the 2s, 5s and 10s and it really slows them down. I think that by year 4 it is very helpful to try and cement that learning.
She advises learning tables in song form and also visually – using a look, see, cover, write , check system for writing them out. She also recommends some quick fire questioning to check recall.
As with all things it is sensible to start with the easiest tables - 7,9,12 which are not just doubles of the simpler ones are the trickiest.
Alison Cantlay always makes a point of repeatedly telling her class her favourite table is 8x7 is 56- " because they never know that and there is no pattern to it."
Rob Eastaway agrees that this is the hardest sum to work out- and suggests a trick for remembering the answer. If you take the numbers 5,6,7,8 you can remember 56 = 7 x 8.
At Alison Cantlay's school they have come up with a new method for encouraging the year 6 children still struggling with their tables. "If they learn a table a week they get a prize. It seems to work very well."
I plan to try a CD and some of the games with my son – but I have a feeling bribery might just be the best solution.
More on Parentdish: The trouble with maths
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