Psychologists at Royal Holloway, University of London, found that prior to the numeracy strategy, the majority of eight to 12-year-olds were slow and made errors when carrying out even simple sums.
Most of the 241 children in the study learned maths by using table squares, number series and answering questions in books. Only 10 pupils reported learning multiplication by the more traditional way of chanting times tables.
When asked to complete a multiplication test on a computer screen, most used calculation and counting in series to work out the answers. Some used very complicated methods, such as calculating a question involving the number eight by multiplying by 10 and counting backwards. Only 11 per cent of the sums were answered by instant recall, which was not only the fastest but the most accurate method.
Dr Sylvia Steel and Professor Elaine Funnell found that by the last year of primary school, a fifth of the children had failed to learn multiplication and only 61 per cent had memorised their times tables up to six times six. Dr Steel said: "We applaud the numeracy strategy's emphasis on mental calculation and a more explicit return to learning tables by rote.
"The research suggests that the use of rote memory can benefit able and less able children alike."
She said some teachers were relieved they could now teach times tables without being seen as old-fashioned or boring. But she claimed that use of rote learning in the numeracy hour was still patchy.
The numeracy strategy does not explicitly demand learning tables by rote but pupils are expected to develop rapid recall.
Learning multiplication facts: a study of children taught by discovery methods in England, in volume 79 of the US Journal of Experimental Child Psychology, pp37-55.