How to teach multiplication to struggling students- dyscalculia math curriculum (1)

10 Tips for Teaching Multiplication to Struggling Students

After going through Algebra 1 and elementary math in our homeschool, I can say with certainty that teaching basic math is sometimes more difficult than Algebra 1.

We had our fair share of hurdles in math, despite my rising 7th grader getting ready for high school Geometry for the upcoming school year, and one of them was multiplication.

Multiplication isn’t an easy concept to master, so it’s pretty common for parents to be scratching their heads when teaching multiplication to struggling students or older students that don’t seem to get it.

So in this article, I want to outline 10 tips (or insights) that you should consider if your child is struggling with multiplication. We’ll look at ways you can make math more fun and less tedious and we’ll talk about online programs like CTCMath that could help you out when teaching multiplication to struggling students.

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Effective Ways to Teach Multiplication to Struggling Students

Summary: The main focus of this article is to provide tips and tricks for teaching multiplication to struggling students. These tips include assessing foundational skills, avoiding rote memorization, using manipulatives and real-life examples, transitioning from concrete to abstract thinking, considering the child’s learning style, and providing practice and reinforcement through games and activities.

It’s very important that parents realize the importance of teaching conceptual understanding, number sense, fluency, and mental math.

Programs like CTCMath online program are a helpful resource for teaching multiplication and addressing math gaps, but there are a lot of other options out therefor every learning style, including options for kids struggling with dyscalculia.

10 tips to teach multiplication to struggling students

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Why is multiplication important?

I know teaching difficult concepts to kids can be extremely frustrating and we sometimes feel like giving up completely – especially if we’re dealing with older students that still haven’t figured out how multiplication works. Before completely giving up on multiplication and taking out the calculator, hear me out.

There is no way kids can advance in mathematics without the basics.

So, if you want your kids to be successful in math (or simply be prepared to tackle high school math requirements) you should be very mindful of how you teach the basic, elementary math.

You should definitely not throw in the towel on multiplication, especially since there are so many options out there for teaching it to kids (like using manipulatives, making math more interesting, using helpful programs like CTCMath, or even considering learning difficulties and addressing them correctly). One of them might be the key to unlocking multiplication understanding for your child.

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Since the focus of this article is multiplication, let’s look at some reasons why learning multiplication is important:

  • it’s a foundational math skill: it goes without saying, but multiplication, along with the other basic math operations, are the building blocks for more advanced math concepts. There is no high school math without elementary math. Math is also necessary for many academic fields, such as science, engineering, and technology.
  • it has practical applications: multiplication has real-life applications such as calculating expenses, determining quantities (for example when doubling a recipe), managing time, and solving real-world problems (like how much carpet to buy if you want to redecorate your room). These are all essential skills for financial literacy and for making informed decisions.
  • critical thinking and problem solving: these go hand in hand with the previous point, but they are important enough to emphasize. Understanding basic math operations like multiplication involves logical reasoning, critical thinking, and problem-solving. These skills prepare your child for future challenges.

Calculators, or no calculators?

I know the easiest and quickest solution to teaching multiplication (especially to struggling older kids) is taking out the calculator. But things aren’t that simple.

Using a calculator for basic operations isn’t helping with problem-solving skills or critical thinking. If they don’t understand the basics of math, they will be building all the following math concepts on shaky ground. That’s not something we want to encourage in math because it’s a subject that continually builds upon itself. There is no way to move forward by skipping or not grasping basic concepts.

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Sure, using a calculator is helpful and convenient in a lot of situations, especially for complex calculations or when speed is a priority. But keep in mind that the whole purpose of math instruction is not to get quick solutions but to allow kids to develop skills they can use later, across subjects.

So I want to list some reasons why relying on a calculator before understanding how operations work conceptually might be detrimental to children:

  • conceptual understanding: relying on calculators before understanding how operations work deprives kids of conceptual understanding and subsequently of applying these concepts in real-life situations.
  • number sense, fluency, and mental math: these skills require understanding and the ability to manipulate numbers and make use of mathematical thinking. Calculators provide quick solutions that discourage real thinking. Math also requires some effort and the calculators take that away, standing in the way of learning.
  • can’t be used in every situation: relying on calculators for simple tasks will get them stuck when tackling complex fractions or open-ended problems.
  • can lead to errors: by mindlessly punching numbers in, kids don’t even stop to think if the solution they chose is correct or if the result they got is reasonable because they rely entirely on the calculator. It’s also difficult to backtrack and find their error if they weren’t paying attention to the process, to begin with.
  • can become crutches: by relying on calculators early on, higher mathematics will become inaccessible because kids weren’t taught to think mathematically. For example, by relying on calculators for multiplication, kids will have difficulty finding factors later.

10 tips and tricks for teaching multiplication to struggling students

Multiplication is an essential stepping stone in math, yet a lot of kids are struggling in this area. If you’re in this situation with your children, you might be wondering why they are stuck and what you can do to help them out.

I think it’s important to understand the reasons why kids might find multiplication difficult to understand and then look at possible solutions to address whatever is keeping them back.

1. Multiplication might be difficult to understand without other foundational skills

If your kids are struggling with understanding multiplication, you might want to step back and see if they have gaps in their understanding of addition or struggle with basic number concepts. If this is the case, don’t be afraid to backtrack and fill those gaps.

Multiplication is repeated addition and kids need a good grasp of addition before moving on to multiplication. They also need to understand how patterns work and have a certain sense of the numbers and the relationships between them.

So how do we identify these gaps?

Online math programs like CTCMath are great at finding the math gaps your kids might have and ensuring they are addressed since they offer both testing and access to all grade levels with one account. So you can efficiently track and cover problem areas of your kids when it comes to math.

how to teach multiplication to struggling students CTC math 1

2. Focusing on rote memorization isn’t the right path to understanding multiplication

While memorization has its place, relying first and foremost on rote memorization for teaching multiplication can cause kids to struggle down the road because they didn’t understand how multiplication works. In math, kids need more than good memory to be successful.

I know that in the past, using rote memorization to learn the times table was the only way to go, but things have changed, and rightly so, because many of us, who have memorized multiplication have never really understood the relationship between numbers and how they work together. Memorizing doesn’t equal understanding, and it’s something I already covered in my Singapore math article Unlocking the Secrets of Singapore Math: Beyond Rote Memorization (Singapore Math Dimensions).

Nowadays, we should focus on helping kids develop math fluency while also making sure they understand multiplication by incorporating various strategies.

A combination of deep understanding, mastery, and finally memorization by spaced repetition, will ensure kids grasp the why behind multiplication while also performing well in timed tests where speed is important.

If you think this is the right way to teach math, from an understanding and mastery point of view, you might want to check out the Singapore math method of teaching math.

If you aren’t sure if a mastery approach is best for you, or you don’t wish to teach math yourself, CTCMath can be a better choice. Being flexible enough to be used as both a mastery and a spiral approach, and easy to implement, since it requires almost no intervention from the parent, this online math curriculum is great for treating math anxiety for both parents and children while ensuring kids really grasp the concepts taught. 

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3. Concrete before abstract- always

Kids learn best by doing. We all know that, and yet, as they progress through math, we demand more and more abstract thinking of them, tending to skip the concrete stage altogether.

If they’re lucky, their math curriculum encourages a use of manipulatives, at least initially. But I noticed that most curricula place less and less importance on this step as kids move to multiplication. We seem to allow them plenty of time to explore numbers and basic operations like addition and subtraction, but we don’t spend the same amount of time and attention when they reach multiplication and division.

This is the wrong approach and we should allow them to use manipulatives for as long as they need, until they are able to solve abstract multiplication without any issues.

By allowing kids to see how multiplication works hands on, to experiment and discover the relationships between numbers, we allow deep understanding. It’s not play, it’s learning!

Once understood, a concept is almost impossible to forget because in order to truly understand something, we must first link it to previous experiences. Students with a rich memory background and deeper understanding of the relationship between numbers are better equipped to tackle new problems.

Using manipulatives and real life situations or examples to explain multiplication greatly reduces the need to rely on rote memorization. Kids will develop a strong conceptual understanding of how multiplication works and they will be able to spot patterns in future problems.

It took Marc 2 years to be fluent in multiplication and division. Was I worried? Yes! But I also trusted the process and pulled out our Cuisenaire rods and base ten blocks for every single math lesson. I just didn’t want him to rote memorize multiplication. I wanted him to learn it naturally, through exposure and hands-on learning. And yes, it did take forever to go through each lesson, but we trudged through it. Our curriculum wasn’t meant for slow-moving, self-paced instruction, so that did cause some tension for us, but once he understood how multiplication works and was exposed to enough exercise, he took off!

If you want to avoid our situation, opt for a self-paced curriculum. One which allows you to complete lessons in your own time, like CTCMath and offers you access to all grade levels, so you can focus on learning, not on moving on to the next grade.

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4. Abruptly pushing kids into abstract thinking may cause problems with understanding multiplication

As you move kids from concrete math (hands-on with manipulatives) to symbolic (or abstract) representations, some students might find it difficult to make this transition.

Math teaching experts like Liping Ma recommended clarity of instruction and coherence when teaching elementary math, and this includes using clear transitions from one step to another.

One way of easing up this transition from concrete to abstract is to introduce an additional step, commonly known in Singapore math as pictorial representation. But this might be difficult to implement at home if the parents aren’t familiar with the Singapore math method of teaching math. But there’s a solution for those of you that feel anxious about the learning curve of this math approach. Just like Singapore math methods, CTCMath makes use of pictorial examples on screen, using this transitional step to abstract multiplication.

Another excellent way of helping kids transition into the abstract portion of multiplication is to mind the type of wording you use. Instead of saying the words ‘multiplied by’ or ‘times’, use ‘of’. This simple change can spell the difference between getting how multiplication works or not. None of the words we commonly use to describe multiplication make immediate sense to young learners because they require abstract thinking and connections they might not possess yet. By using ‘of’ we encourage them to think in groups or arrays, which are easier to visualize and solve.

To offer you a clear example of this, instead of seeing 3×5 as 3 multiplied by 5, we can present it to kids as 3 of 5 (or 3 groups of 5 objects).

This approach can take multiplication closer to kids’ concrete explorations with manipulatives and help them develop a deeper understanding of the concept. Visualizing multiplication as groups or arrays can support their ability to solve multiplication problems and build a solid foundation for more abstract mathematical thinking in the future.

This is one of the tricks that helped Marc transition from Cuisenaire rods to traditional multiplication, on paper and something that’s beautifully explained by in her videos.

CTCMath also makes use of the word ‘of’ in one of their strategies for teaching multiplication arrays as well. This helps students overcome the difficulty of transitioning to abstract thinking.

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5. Do you know your child’s learning style?

I know this might sound cliche, but hear me out.

Does your kid learn best by reading, by hearing things being explained, by doing, by moving?

Provide Multi-Modal Instruction: Recognize that students with different learning styles and abilities may benefit from various instructional approaches. Incorporate visual aids, verbal explanations, hands-on activities, and technology-based resources to present multiplication concepts in multiple ways. This ensures that struggling students have access to different modes of learning and increases their chances of understanding and retaining the material.

I know you might wonder how on earth can you teach multiplication by moving? I’ll give you examples of materials for multiplication learning for each of the learning styles.

But first, when it comes to math, finding a curriculum that caters to multiple learning styles can be a great starting point. A homeschool math curriculum online like CTCMath, that combines audio-visual instruction with printable worksheets and games, can be just what you need. If you want to find out more about this curriculum, read my CTCMath review.

  • math for visual learners: Singapore math is a great option if you have visual learners.
  • math for kinaesthetic learners: Math-U-See is all about manipulatives. Or just add manipulatives to any math curriculum you’re using. Don’t forget about fun games, either.
  • math for auditory learners: Life of Fred and similar math-reading books might be best for auditory learners. Or simply add a multiplication supplement like Times Tables.
  • reading/writing learners: Saxon math or classical math approaches with a lot of repetition and drills added in might work best for these learners.

I noticed Marc learns best by a combination of these styles. That’s why we didn’t go for curricula that were leaning too much on one side of the spectrum.

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6. Lack of practice and reinforcement can lead to poor multiplication skills

Learning multiplication takes time and practice. Kids that don’t have enough chances to practice multiplication have a harder time recalling multiplication facts.

But by practice and reinforcement, I don’t mean drilling, or at least not traditional drilling. There are a lot of ways to practice multiplication that are in fact drilling in disguise!

Math curricula like CTC Math know the importance of practice when it comes to basic math operations, but they also know most kids prefer playing over doing worksheets. That’s why they incorporated math drills in their online math curriculum in the guise of games that you can try for free. One of the games they offer, Speed Skills is a simple speed game for all the operations and even the order of operations, but they also offer a fun game explicitly for multiplication called Times Tables Shoot ‘Em Up, a classic space shooting game. Marc loves playing with these games and he doesn’t even realize he is honing his speed math skills by playing them.

If you prefer taking the math games offline, there are multiple multiplication printables online for any age! One of them is my multiplication game printable Castle Walls, which is in fact a simple multiplication arrays game that you can use with or without Cuisenaire rods or other math manipulatives.

Castle Walls- A Multiplication Games Printable

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For other multiplication printables, check my curated list below. You are sure to find something your kids will love.

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7. Always offer more than one strategy

One of the major flaws of traditional math curricula is that it generally presents kids with a single method of approaching math concepts and expects everyone to understand it.

The problem with this is that kids’ brains work differently and are wired differently. What works well for one might not work at all for another.

Our duty as homeschool parents/teachers is to find multiple ways of presenting new concepts to kids and let them choose their preferred way of doing it. Some of the most comprehensive math curricula out there adopted this strategy of presenting children with multiple math heuristics (aka strategies or shortcuts) of solving a problem or approaching a concept.

CTCMath is one example of a comprehensive math curriculum that presents kids with multiple strategies for understanding multiplication. Some of the strategies CTCMath teaches when it comes to multiplication are: repeated addition multiplication arrays, using fingers to multiply, making groups, doubles, multiplication by using a number line, and more!

And if you’re past basic multiplication and into multiplying multiple digits, you can check out my printable just for this, teaching you 7 ways to solve multiplication with multiple digits, including visual methods like the Chinese lattice method of multiplication or the Japanese dot method of multiplication.

7 Ways to Multiply – Multiplication methods worksheets

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8. Lack of motivation and engagement when learning multiplication

Let’s admit it: multiplication is no walk in the park. Kids that don’t initially understand the underlying concepts of multiplication can easily become uninterested in learning more.

Similarly, when students don’t see the relevance or importance of multiplication they might have difficulty focusing and really applying themselves to learn and practice multiplication skills.

So what can we do to motivate them?

Show students how multiplication is used in everyday life and real-world scenarios. For example, explore how multiplication is used in calculating prices, measuring ingredients for recipes, or determining distances and areas. Make it relatable!

Another method you can use with any curriculum is to change the output/input.

What I mean by that is if you see that a concept isn’t sticking and kids lose their motivation to try more, make it interesting for them, shake things up!

It doesn’t have to be much, or it can be hopping to another curriculum for teaching that particular concept!

The beauty of eclectic homeschooling is that it has taught me early on to make use of all the wonderful tools that we have available and not cling to a method or curriculum for everything. Even if it means we’re hopping elsewhere to learn multiplication.

If you’re doing a textbook based curriculum and you’re stuck, don’t be afraid to hop in to the world of online math curriculum like CTCMath, even if it’s only to teach a concept, or brush up on some skils.

The other, simple method of motivating kids, is to simply change the way you do things. Don’t be scared to let kids type their answers instead of writing them down, of using stickers and stamps instead of askking them to write things down. Don’t be afraid of using games instead of drills!

Sometimes a small adjustment can go a long way when it comes to kids.

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9. Don’t be afraid of using technology!

I’ll just say it: use technology and digital resources.

Kids learn well when the medium is right for them. So if that’s on screen, so be it. Don’t be afraid of pulling out those apps!

Incorporating technology and digital resources can be highly beneficial when teaching multiplication to struggling students. Here are some ways to leverage technology in multiplication instruction:

  • Interactive Apps and Games: Explore educational apps and games specifically designed to teach and reinforce multiplication concepts. These can engage students, provide immediate feedback, and make learning multiplication more enjoyable. One of our favorite apps ever when it comes to number sense is DragonBox and they have a new multiplication app called Kahoot! so check it out!
  • Virtual Manipulatives: Virtual manipulatives, such as virtual base-ten blocks or fraction bars, can help struggling students visualize multiplication problems and develop a deeper understanding of the concepts. If you want a list of wonderful online manipulatives, check my Cuisenaire rods post.
  • Adaptive Learning Platforms: Consider using adaptive learning platforms that adjust the difficulty level based on each student’s progress and provide personalized instruction and practice opportunities, like CTCMath. Because of it’s progress tracking and adaptive nature, CTCMath ensures kids are always challenged at their level, progressing at their pace.
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10. Address learning difficulties- teaching multiplication to struggling students with dyscalculia

Finally, if you tried everything else and your kids still have trouble understanding multiplication, consider looking out for any learning difficulties that might affect their ability to process mathematical concepts.

Conditions such as dyscalculia can make multiplication particularly challenging for these students.

Finding out the cause for their math struggles means you can make informed decisions in the way you present math to them and also in the math curriculum you chose.

Dyscalculia is commonly called math dyslexia because, much like dyslexia, it disrupts areas in the brain related to math. Dyscalculia affects an individual’s ability to understand and work with numbers and mathematical concepts. People with dyscalculia may have difficulties with various aspects of math, including:

  • arithmetic operations – they may have difficulty with basic arithmetic operations such as addition, subtraction, multiplication, and division. Memorizing and recalling math facts may be challenging for them.
  • number sense – they may struggle with understanding the magnitude of numbers. comparing and ordering numbers, and recognizing patterns.
  • math symbols and language – they may find it hard to comprehend mathematical symbols, equations, and mathematical language, which can impede their understanding of math problems and concepts.
  • spatial reasoning – some individuals may have difficulty with spatial reasoning which can affecr their understanding of geometric shapes, spatial relationships, and measurement concepts.

It’s important to understand that dyscalculia isn’t a result of low intelligence or lack of effort. It’s a neurodevelopmental condition that affects the brain’s ability to process numerical and mathematical information.

Children with dyscalculia will have a particularly difficult time understanding how multiplication (and division) work. When it comes to these concepts, memorization of facts is not recommended because dyscalculia limits the available memory for these concepts.

Does that mean the kids with learning difficulties like dyscalculia can’t learn math or basic operations?


It simply means that you need to find more suitable strategies, like the ones presented in this article, to explain these concepts. This also includes choosing the right math curriculum for struggling students, like CTCMath, an online math curriculum that approaches math in a way that’s suitable for kids with learning difficulties because:

  • it focuses on multi-sensory learning
  • it allows students to work at their own pace
  • the lessons are clear and structured
  • it has short lessons
  • it offers immediate feedback
  • it tracks progress so parents can identify areas of struggle.
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Final thoughts

Math isn’t easy, and when it comes to teaching multiplication to struggling students, parents have to take several things into consideration, including the possibility of switching curricula, or any learning difficulties that might stop kids from understanding mathematical concepts.

Fortunately, there are a lot of strategies and tricks we can use to make multiplication learning easier for the kids like focusing on understanding, using manipulatives, using fun activities instead of drilling, and presenting kids with multiple ways of solving multiplication.

There are also amazing math programs out there, like CTCMath that work perfectly for a variety of learning styles, and even for students with dyscalculia.

What are some of your strategies for teaching multiplication to struggling students?

Let me know in the comments below!

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Any tips for teaching multiplication to students with math anxiety?

Some tips for teaching multiplication to students with math anxiety include creating a supportive and non-threatening environment, emphasizing understanding over speed, using visual aids and manipulatives, and providing opportunities for hands-on learning.

How can multiplication be taught to middle schoolers?

Middle schoolers can benefit from more advanced strategies, such as using real-world examples, incorporating technology and online resources, and introducing more complex multiplication concepts like multiplying decimals or fractions.

How can multiplication be taught to high school students?

High school students can delve deeper into multiplication by exploring more advanced topics like matrix multiplication, exponentiation, and algebraic expressions involving multiplication. It is important to relate these concepts to real-life applications to enhance understanding.

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