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How I Teach - A tag-team approach to maths

Mix up your lessons to help low-ability classes progress

Mix up your lessons to help low-ability classes progress

Teaching the bottom maths set was something I dreaded as a trainee teacher. I was concerned about behavioural issues, complex special educational needs and the negative feelings students can have towards the subject I love.

In practice, I also found that students in these classes tended to have low attention spans. Add to this a chronic shortage of confidence and you had the perfect mixture to induce dread whenever my timetable included the lowest sets.

However, I soon learned that teaching the bottom set does not have to be a distressing experience. In fact, some of my most enjoyable maths lessons have been with these classes. All it requires is a shift in strategy.

This new way of working does not make teaching the bottom set easy; the truth is that it can still be draining at times. But it creates an opportunity for real progress in attainment, which is incredibly rewarding to witness.

The strategy takes advantage of the smaller class sizes you often get in the bottom sets and makes better use of teaching assistants (TAs) in the learning process. A typical lesson offers five or six short tasks for students to complete, the first of which tests prior knowledge.

Once students have started the task, a tag-team approach comes into play. As the first students finish task 1, I take them aside and teach them what they need to know for task 2, while TAs assist those still working on task 1. Once I have set the advanced group on task 2, I swap with the TAs so that I am helping the task 1 students and the TAs are guiding the learning of the task 2 students. This format continues for the rest of the lesson.

The advantage is that those who are ready to progress can do so without waiting for their peers, and those who need extra support can be given the help they require.

It is important to make sure that students are heavily praised throughout each task - I find that using stickers helps with motivation. This praise is key to changing students' feelings towards their maths lessons, and helps to dispel any feelings they may have about being "bad" at maths, thus improving their confidence.

Over the years I have found that this strategy is the best way to teach lower-ability maths classes. Although it may seem like more work, the reward is that - as my experience has repeatedly shown - it makes maths lessons more productive for both the students and the teacher.

Paul Collins is a maths teacher at a secondary school in Surrey, England, and a member of the TES Connect maths panel. You can find him on Twitter at @mrprcollins.

Top 10 motivational maths resources

1. Salary sums

This collection of maths posters includes a list of UK Premier League wages. Although this may inspire students, it will probably depress those of us who earn far less than professional footballers.


2. Murderous maths

Students crack the codes in this murder mystery activity and prove themselves a match for master sleuth Sherlock Holmes by revealing the culprit.


3. Formulas for fun

This resource pack contains a series of entertaining maths activities on topics including crocodiles and the Grand National horse race.


4. Exit strategy

Keep up to date with how your class is doing by using these "exit tickets", which give students quick maths challenges and room to indicate how confident they are with a task.


5. Motivational messages

Brighten up your classroom with colourful posters featuring thought- provoking quotes. These gems of mathematical wisdom aim to promote the value of the subject and the importance of persistence and hard work.


6. Timed tables

This game challenges students to find the answers to times-table questions. But to make it extra exciting, they must do it against the clock.


7. Functional films

These video clips talk students through maths problems in a step-by-step way.


8. Brain training

If your students perpetually struggle to recall what perimeter means or how many sides a quadrilateral has, these handy learning aids are a godsend: they will help to jog their memories.


9. Rich and famous

Give ordering numbers a fresh context with this activity on celebrity salaries. It makes an ideal starter, and is also perfect for practising identifying tens, hundreds and thousands.


10. Adding ABC

Decorate your walls with this extensive collection of maths vocabulary posters.


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