'Macarena' maths and 'ty' parties: the future of primary numeracy?

This teacher is pushing multi-sensory approaches to maths in KS1 and is finding it has a big impact on engagement and attainment


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The teacher is doing it. The students are doing it. The parents are doing it. Even the office staff and the caretaker are doing it.

And while the fact they're constantly singing and waving their arms might seem like they're taking part in some sort of mass participation dance event akin to the Macarena, what is actually happening at Iveson Primary School in Leeds is some very effective maths teaching.

"The success of my multi-sensory maths approach in raising standards is to make it consistent," says Esther Patterson, a Year One teacher and the woman behind the school's innovative approach to numeracy. "So that means getting all staff and parents doing the same hand movements and songs."

Rather than nostalgic recreations of a Spanish holidays, certain hand gestures relate to certain numbers, so children get used to acting as well as thinking about their sums. Everyone from parents to office staff is trained to use those movements when they mention a number and often they sing the songs that go with them, too.

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So, for example, to distinguish between ‘ty ‘and teen’ numbers (20/15, for example) and clarify children’s thinking, the ‘teen’ numbers have a gesture using both hands open, while ‘ty’ numbers are represented by using a gesture with a thumb and index finger.

This group dancing and singing is just one way Esther gets kids, parents and everyone else in the school thinking about and practicing maths. Another interesting idea is the 'ty' party.

"There is nothing more satisfying than being surrounded by a group of Reception or Year 1 children enjoying juice and a biscuit at our ’ty’ party," says Esther. "This is the celebration after learning all about the difference between ‘ty’ and ‘teen’ numbers. The children have sorted lots of numbers, selecting ‘ty ‘numbers to go to the party while the ‘teen’ numbers are not invited."

Of course, many EYFS settings use innovative, action-based methods of getting children learning, but this pedagogy can fade away in Year One and be replaced with a more traditional approach. Rarely does everyone inside and outside the school get invovled, either. Esther believes all of KS1 needs a more engaging way of teaching and that everyone in a school and at a child's home needs to be invovled.

Her approach is based on the Numbers Count programme that was around in schools a few years back before funding was cut. 

"It was so effective I could not abandon it," says Esther. "So I carried on and developed it into my own set of practices for multi-sensory maths. It involves songs, hand movements, lots of practical ways to help children understand and retain number facts."

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So successful has the approach been that Esther has been asked into numerous schools to deliver training. Demand is so high she is struggling to find the time to help everyone who asks for assistance, and it has all come from word of mouth recommendations: teachers using it, seeing the value, and sharing the knowledge.

"I think that's really important - we need to share what we do to help each other'" she says.

She adds that the most rewarding aspect for her is that parents, as well as the children, have a more positive attitude to maths after being involved in the teaching approaches.

"Multi-sensory approach has a massive impact on children's and parent's confidence in  maths and progress and a love of maths and to help children make  mathematical connections and a positive attitude to ‘have a go’," she says.

 "It fosters an environment where children can learn and build confidence. Where mistakes are our friends."

Esther Patterson teaches at Iveson Primary School in Leeds, where the school motto is "where aspirations soar" and where the multi sensory approach is helping to achieve this. To find out more about her approach contact her on estherbpatterson@gmail.com

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