12 tips for developing number sense and recall

Ellie McCann

Ellie McCann, a former Primary school teacher, is part of the Maths specialist team at Third Space Learning, helping to close the social attainment gap through one-to-one tuition via an online platform of lessons for KS1 and KS2. Real tutors teach over 3,500 UK primary pupils a personalised Maths lesson every week, focusing on building confidence and accelerating progress, as well as raising attainment. To find out how we can help pupils in your school, book a demo here.

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For our pupils to become able and confident mathematicians in Primary school, it is essential that they have a bank of key number facts they have learnt stored away, which they can draw on at any time. However, we must work to incorporate new ways to help them memorise these facts so that they have them at their disposal whenever they’re needed.
Number Sense

As teachers, we need to help/support pupils to move from counting times tables on their fingers to quickly recalling them mentally. Confidence in Maths comes both from knowing the answer, and knowing the shortcuts to get to the answer. Increasing the ease with which a pupil can answer basic maths fact will improve confidence and in all likelihood attainment for the remainder of their education.

This isn’t all about rote learning. As Jo Boaler emphasises, speed should not always be the goal."Those who do not memorise easily can still have exceptional Maths potential." Some people are better at memorising than others. However, those who do not memorise easily can still have exceptional Maths potential. While some pupils will excel in a pressured, timed context, others will suffer from anxiety which could have a negative impact. These pupils may well need more work to develop their ‘Number sense’, which means encouraging them to work with and explore numbers so that even if they can’t initially remember the answer to a multiplication fact, they can still find another way to get there. For example, a pupil might not remember 12 x 8 is 96. But if they know 11 x 8 is 88 and understand that they just need to add on another 8, then they can still find the answer. It’s important to bear this in mind when choosing from strategies to use to support different pupils in class.

There is a better way than repetition, repetition, repetition

How can we, as teachers, support our pupils? We all understand the influence we have on our pupils’ education, so it is imperative we find the best methods to use. While repetition, repetition, repetition will work for some, it isn’t the be all and end all. And in the Primary classroom, whether KS1 or KS2, it’s really important that we try out new and varied strategies which make this element of learning as exciting and engaging as possible.

With recent changes to the curriculum, particularly a focus on formal algorithms and arithmetic testing, it is becoming more important than ever that the children we teach can quickly and confidently recall key facts in Maths. Just think of what there is to assimilate, such as:

  • Addition facts.
  • Subtraction facts.
  • Times tables and related division facts.
  • Doubles, near doubles and halves.
  • Square and cubed numbers.


These facts provide the foundation upon which they will then be able to practise and build their problem solving skills.

Recommended by me

The following list combines my experience in the classroom with methods that we use one-to-one to help pupils progress in Maths. Some of them I proudly confess to have borrowed from colleagues where I’ve seen them to be effective.

1. Rolling Numbers/Times table chants

I embraced this approach to times tables memorisation with my classes and the children loved it. It is essentially an update on the age old approach of chanting but adding in some more exciting elements: a rhythm, some rhymes, actions… whatever you like to make a catchy and easily remembered times table rap. The chant for the 7 time table involved stamping on the floor, and my class always threw themselves into it with great enthusiasm (although I’m not sure how much the teacher in the room below us appreciated it!).

2. Times Table Rockstars

Again, a modern take on a very traditional approach: testing. But with this, rather than just completing a standard times table test once a week in silence, the idea is to complete as many of the fifty questions as quickly as possible whilst also listening to a rock song. Then, based on their finishing time, children become “Rockstars”, “Rock legends”, or “Rock Gods”. This was great for the competitive children in my class and I found that the music helped them focus (our favourite song was Eye of the Tiger) as well as making it a more fun approach generally. For the musicians amongst, you this also provides a great way to educate your class in classic rock music as it’s up to you to choose the tracks!

3. “Ask me!” badges.

A nice way for pupils to share their achievements and keep practising is to give them a badge encouraging people to ask them a particular set of number facts they have learnt, eg “I’ve learnt my number bonds to 10 – ask me!” or “ask me my 8 times table”. Then, when they walk around school other members of staff can see what they’ve been working on, praise them and check their understanding. It also serves as a handy reminder of their target to both the pupil and teacher. Obviously it’s best not to do this before they have had the chance to practise and become confident or it could be too daunting for them.

4. Counting Stick

I found this quite traditional teaching method to be one of the most effective for times tables. It seems very simple, but I was consistently surprised by how much my children loved it and it really did help the facts stick in their memory. All you need is a metre stick which is clearly divided into 10cm sections, and some post-its.

Write each multiple of a particular times table on a post-it and stick them along the metre stick. Start by getting the children to recite “1 times 4 is 4, 2 times 4 is 8 etc…” with you as you point to each section on the counting stick. I like to count up, backwards then mix it up by pointing to different sections out of order. Once you have done that a few times, start to remove a few post-its and repeat the same steps of chanting again. Repeat the process of removing post-its and chanting until there are none left and the children are saying the number facts from memory. My class used to love the challenge as they saw the post-its being taken away and would even ask for me to remove more sooner!

5. Practise during transitions

A great time to practise number facts is during “transitions”, when pupils are moving from their desks to the carpet, or getting ready to line up at the door. If you consider that each time you do this you are using up at least a minute or so of time, think how much practise time on number facts you could gain in a week."Make a game of counting up and down in steps of 2, 5 and 10 when going up and down steps, or just walking along the pavement." I used to get my class to recite a particular times table chant or count up or back in various steps when moving to and from their desks. This does require you to have strict rules about when they start and stop counting, but I have found it really effective. Not only does it give them more time to practise but it also stops them having the chance to chat or squabble as they move around the class – a win / win in my books!

6. Get parents involved

Getting children to spend time learning and memorising number facts at home can be hard and many children will try to avoid it if they can. Try to get parents on board as early as possible by suggesting activities they can do together at home. But keep it simple - for busy working parents ,finding the time to sit down to a complicated activity can be hard. For early Key Stage 1, things like playing board games can be useful to reinforce counting on and backwards. I also often suggest making a game of counting up and down in steps of 2, 5 and 10 when going up and down steps or just, walking along the pavement. Going into Key Stage 2 I normally suggest parents try to get children involved in looking at prices and thinking about change when they go to the supermarket.

7. Classroom games

Making Maths fun is really important, and one of the easiest ways to do this is by integrating practise into your classroom using a range of games. Two that my classes have always loved are “Last man standing” and “Round the world”. But of course, there are loads of different ones to try. The important thing is to try and differentiate your questions based on the pupil that is answering so that they can all access it.

8. “SPLAT”

A great way to make use of the interactive whiteboard is to make a game of splat. Place answers to times tables questions around your screen. Then get two pupils to stand in front of the board. When you call out a times table question the first pupil to “splat” the answer is the winner. You can play this individually or split the class into two teams and keep score.

9. Pupils as Teachers

We all know the statistics about remembering 90% of what you teach others, so hand the control to the children and get them to help each other. You could try putting them in groups and tasking them with creating a rhyme or poster on a particular set of number facts – then pair the groups up and get them to do a mini lesson or presentation and teach each other.

10. Target Board Starter

This one can be a nice starter for your Maths lessons each day and is a good way of testing pupils’ recall of a wide range of number facts. Display a 4 x 5 grid on your whiteboard and fill it with a variety of numbers. They can be whole numbers, decimals, fractions, percentages. Then come up with a list of questions for the answers on the board. Each day, spend two-three minutes asking children to find the answers eg “Which numbers are multiples of 10?”, “Write down 3 factors of 25, which you can see?” “Find the number which is double 18”. The nice thing about this is that the pupils know the answers are there on the board, so it’s not as daunting for those who might need a bit of support.

These tips are just a few of the many that exist, you need to find what works for your pupils. The important thing is that we give our pupils the chance to practise these number facts as much as possible. This will help build their confidence, develop their passion for Maths and enthusiasm to tackle more difficult problems in future.

How do you help pupils to engage with Maths? Let us know below!

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