When I first left undergraduate school I took a job teaching 8th and 9th grade math. My 8th graders were introduced to integer multiplication for the first time at that level. They certainly knew natural number multiplication and even knew integer addition which includes subtraction by the time we took up integer multiplication.
When teaching integer addition I presented it as addition of vectors directed along the number line. So +2 + -4 would be an arrow starting at zero of length 2 pointing to the right then append an arrow of length 4 pointing to the left. The tip of the second arrow wound up at the point -2 on the number line.
To extend that idea to integer multiplication I introduced items I called ‘Number Line Frogs’. Each frog had a number associated with it and a direction. So a +2 frog could jump two places at a time and it pointed to the right. The number -3 was represented by a frog that could jump three places and pointed to the left.
I then asked the students to think of integer multiplication problems in two parts. The problem a x b was to be visualized as an ‘a-frog’ being asked to do something and that something was to perform ‘b’ jumps. The problem always started at the origin or ‘0’ on the number line. The sign of the number ‘b’ indicated which direction the frog was to jump. The absolute value of the number ‘b’ indicated how many jumps the frog was to take. The sign of the number ‘a’ indicated which direction the frog was pointing and the absolute value of the number ‘a’ indicated how far the frog could jump.
In this way of thinking about it the problem +2 x -3 was the same as saying ‘Allow a +2 frog to jump three jumps backward (-3)’. I stressed that the problem -3 x +2 was the same problem as could be verified by saying ‘Allow a -3 frog to take two jumps forward (+2)’ In both cases the end result was the number -6.
The rule for ‘positive-a times positive-b’ was to say ‘let a postive-a-frog take b-jumps-forward’ which came out to be the same problem as saying ‘let a positive-b-frog take a-jumps-forward’.
The rule for ‘positive-a times negative-b’ was to say ‘let a positive-a-frog take b-jumps-backward, while the rule for ‘negative-b times positive-a’ was to say ‘let a negative-b frog take a-jumps-forward’.
Finally the rule for ‘negative-a times negative-b’ was to say ‘let a ‘negative-a frog take ‘b-jumps-backward’.
When viewed this way and taking into account the ‘frog’ always started at zero the sign table for integer multiplication was justified. Additionally the commutative property of multiplication was illustrated by noting any number that could be decomposed into ‘b-groups of length a’ was equivalent to the observation that the same number could be decomposed into ‘a-groups of length b’.
I will say that the 8th grade group I had were sorted in an inhomogeneous manner with all the top students put into one class and that class was assigned to me. I did worry about this sorting process and felt that it was wrong on multiple levels but given there was nothing a first year math teacher could do to change the situation I made the most of it and presented many mathematical concepts using non standard methods (i.e. presented not-by-the-book). I think that math class did enjoy my presentations.