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Adding it up in the real world

Adam Jezard reports on a scheme that draws on the senses and the sense behind mathematics

Touching, feeling and seeing numbers can improve children's mathematical abilities according to a study from BEAM Education. Reception and Year 1 teachers at a Brighton infant school, with staff from Brighton University's School of Education, have taken this on board and worked together to make multi-sensory arithmetic activities for a Teacher Training Agency research project.

The school has 180 pupils, one third of whom are on the special needs register. Just over 20 per cent qualified for free school meals and many children enter the school with poor language skills. "The activities used shapes and rods [part of a system called Numicon] and encouraged children to develop a systematic mental imagery of number, to develop mathematical language and to apply their arithmetic to real-life problems," the researchers say. "We wanted children to develop an understanding of number that relates numbers to each other [rational understanding]. For example, fitting together the three and seven shapes provides a visual model of why the answer is 10 and how three plus seven relates to eight plus two and four plus six. They could then draw on this understanding when it came to solving new problems - instead of just applying learned procedures and falling back on counting when they met something unfamiliar."

Gradually the project was extended over the whole school, from the nursery to Year 2. The classrooms became a "visually rich mathematics environment" - drawers were numbered as well as labelled, storage pots were marked to show how many pencils they should contain, and teachers regularly used clocks and calendars, and showed numbers in daily use in data-handling situations such as how many children eat school dinners? How many eat a packed lunch?

Each class also has its own mathematics area, containing an interactive display offering independent activities such as counting, numeral recognition games, pattern-making activities, problem-solving puzzles and construction kits. The rods and shapes are used in the daily maths lessons, which are predominantly practical and multi-sensory as children have to touch and see the images while using connected mathematical language. Early activities focus on teaching children the patterns on the apparatus and how these relate to other patterns before moving to using and naming numerals. Children are not required to record their arithmetic on paper until they have shown understanding in a practical context.

At all times teachers try to make connections between the apparatus they are using and the "real world". For example, when learning about subtraction links are made to number songs such as "Five Little Firemen", which involves taking away.

Children are not expected to tackle too many ideas at once. Each activity builds on and extends previous learning, and sometimes familiar areas are revisited for a deeper focus. In-built is the opportunity for children to practise what they have learned. When the children were tested at the end of key stage 1, there was a dramatic improvement in attainment over the scores of previous year groups. Since the study, similar levels of attainment have been sustained year-on-year at the school.

The cohort was followed through to the tests at the end of KS2, where again the results have shown a marked improvement over previous years. Pupils developed a range of strategies which other cohorts did not and appear to see numbers as related wholes. They do not get their answers by counting and many are able to apply arithmetic skills to solve problems in context. With few exceptions, the children also develop confident and positive attitudes to maths. Research also indicates such methods can be useful with pupils who have Down syndrome or dyslexia.

Learning About Numbers with Patterns (Numicon) by Romey Tacon, Ruth Atkinson and Dr Tony Wing can be read in full at more about Numicon resources, go to and To find out more about Numicon and special education go to click "search" and type "Numicon" into the search engine

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