My pupil is nine, and in Year 5. When he came to me at the beginning of December, he knew no multiplication tables at all - he could count in multiples of two and five, but when he tried to say a table, he got lost beyond 2x2. Asked to make any kind of calculation beyond counting, he repeated the question as if it were a great surprise, guessed wildly and laughed, an unfortunate trait that led his teachers to think he was being cheeky when in fact he was nervous - he knew that he would get things wrong.

I've taught him using the approach to tables set out below and published by The School Run. The approach is very simple. I explain how tables work, and why we need them - the alternative is counting, which is slower and less reliable, as we can easily lose our place when counting to larger numbers. We practise saying the 2x table carefully, concentrating on not losing his place. This takes more work than anything else - saying the table is an exercise in co-ordination, so that he does not count on from the wrong column. This issue is the key to multiplication tables, but it is not resolved by grinding. Instead, we isolate an error, explain it, go back a couple of places and practise in a focused way, as we would if we were learning music.

Yesterday at 5pm, not the best time for a nine year old, my pupil said the tables from 2 to 5 with only an occasional hesitation, and did very well in answering questions about 3x, which he had struggled with last week. I've been thinking about the order in which pupils learn tables. They usually count in multiples, beginning with 2x and then 5x, in an attempt to build a sense of number, leading quickly to place value. I now think this is wrong on three counts. First, counting in multiples makes it harder to learn to say a table, which involves switching between columns. Second, makes it more difficult to learn to pick a particular item from a table, which is needed once we begin to use them for calculation. Third, the leap from 2x to 5x is too big - building up through 2,3 and 4x builds up a sense of gradually increasing numbers and intervals that makes 5x and later 10x, the key interval, easier to understand.

I don't often do this, but the success in tables to 5 resulted in the award of a small bar of milk chocolate. We then returned to larger tables. I'd tried nines before, using the declining final digit as a guide, and this time he got them right with just a few hesitations. Similarly 8x, the final digit going down by 2, and starting again after 5x. I was pleased with the way he'd picked up this pattern - he needs a name, so I'll call him Adrian, after an old friend. Adrian then managed 11x and 12x, with trouble only over 11x11 and 12x11. Skipping the tens for the moment, we moved to 7x, which he said he didn't know at all, but which he did know up to 3x7. We practised it together, and Adrian picked it up quickly. He then announced that he knew 6x. He did up to 6x6, and we said and practised the rest.

So, he has the makings of a full set after two months' work. We'll practise and move to applying tables in calculation. He made only two or three wild guesses in the course of this session, and the nervous laugh was under control. He and his grandmother left with big smiles, and we'd also done some reading and made a start on French - he wrote Je m'appelle Adrian accurately after I'd explained why it was spelled as it is. Harry Potter had fallen out of favour after around 90 pages, but Adrian had shown himself that he could read it, which was the main thing.