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Games at home bolster numeracy

Karen Thornton reports from the British Association conference in Cardiff on moves for a reformed science curriculum, on a plea for a broader sixth-form curriculum and on research into how parental help can raise standards in mathematics

Parents can help improve their children's numeracy skills by playing simple maths games at home with them, according to new research.

Exeter University research supports the Government's policy of involving parents in its drive to raise numeracy standards - and suggests parents are not lacking in confidence when it comes to helping with maths homework, at least at infant level.

In fact children benefited from the games whether they played them with their mothers or fathers, or at school with a teacher.

However, few of the parties involved - including the teachers - fully understood the mathematical ideas underlying even the simplest games.

The research was presented to the British Association by Professor Martin Hughes. Sending maths games home for children to play with their parents is not new, he told conference delegates. However, little is known about what parents actually do when they help their children in this way. The Exeter University study involved 32 children aged five to seven from eight schools in Devon and Bristol.

Children played two versions of the same addition game -"snails'' and "trains" - in which they added up the numbers from two thrown dice and marked off a square against the snail or train marked with the same (total) number.

Halfway through, they were asked to predict which snail or train would reach the end of their trail first - to see if they understood the probability ideas underlying the game. Children's addition skills improved just as much whether they played with parents or teachers, said Professor Hughes.

What differed was the methods or procedures they used or were encouraged to use when they got stuck. In school, props such as counters or blocks were used to add up the two sets of numbers. At home, children relied more on "counting on" methods, using their andor their parents' fingers. In all, the researchers identified 14 different addition procedures.

"We have got children using different procedures at home and school. Does this matter?" asked Professor Hughes. "You could argue that it is important children get a range of different methods. But it does matter if children get confused, and we saw some evidence of that, where children were using procedures they had learned at home which weren't appropriate at school and vice versa.

"At the very least, teachers and parents should be aware that other methods are being used elsewhere. That suggests much more communication between home and school."

He added: "`The way maths is going as part of the national numeracy strategy, counting on is likely to be emphasised more than making sets. What children are doing at home may be more in line with the strategy than what they are doing at school.''

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