Are you, like me, deeply sceptical of software claims? "Use it with the whole class, from a single computer." Ha! Do tables-practice programs that involve one child sitting in front of pound;2,000-worth of equipment completing an electronic workcard move you to unprintable exasperation?
Prepare to rejoice, then. These programs do what they claim. They really can be used with a large group, actually teach strategies for tables and promote number understanding. They have also generated so much enthusiasm among my Year 4 class that parents are asking what they are and where they can get them.
The ATM's suite of three programs addresses the foundations of number work in the primary or secondary school. Numbers develops pupils' ability to say, read and write numbers, and to recognise the place value of individual digits. A range such as 1-99, 1-9,999 or 0.001-999 can be set by the teacher (or indeed the pupils) before tasks are worked on. A pupil can construct numbers such as 2,704 by selecting 2,000, 700 and 4 from a place value grid. Selected numbers move across the screen, dropping into "place" - an effective, dynamic demonstration of place value. Numbers may be presented in symbolic or written form and, if the computer has sound, the program can read them out.
Complements promotes understanding of addition and subtraction. At the simplest level Year 1 children could use it to practise all the pairs that make 10 - 8 and 2; 6 and 4; 1 and 9, and so on. Complements to 20, 30, 40 or 100 can be worked on, and a square grid promotes sound strategies. A range of D grids can be selected to suit the needs of pupils of various ages. I watched it challenge a bright 12-year-old.
Tables differs from the dire tables-practice programs we have all seen by promoting mental strategies, particularly doubling and halving. It can be used for speed practice by confident children who have already learned some of their tables, but is invaluable for those who are still using repeated addition, suggesting, for instance, that children can calculate 5x7 by doing 10x7 and halving the result - much more powerful.
All three have a "browse" mode, which allows the user to attempt any of the tasks, but they also feature a "progression" mode, which stores information on individuals, allowing progress to increasingly higher levels. The combination of careful progression, strategy promotion and gradual withdrawal of support really does work, although, as with all good software, the teacher will have to put in some learning time to manage it effectively.
Laurie Rousham teaches a Year 4 class at Broke Hall primary in Ipswich, Suffolk