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Mathagony Aunt

Q) In my bottom set maths classes (S2 and S3 Scottish system, ages 1213) there are many who find it difficult to read basic questions and decide whether the questions require them to add, subtract, multiply or divide.

What techniques could I use to help them learn to choose?

A) If the problem is purely reading the words, I suggest you record the questions so pupils can listen to each one. If their standard of reading is this poor at this age then I assume they will have a support teacher with them. Pupils may be able to read the words in a problem but have difficulty deciphering the mathematical requirement. Most often this is because they are not familiar with all the different words associated with the four rules of arithmetic.

I am including four poems that cover the four operations and also the many words associated with the different operations (also available at Helping lower ability pupils extract the operation from the words is tricky and can depend on the size of the group as well as their not being bored by many duplicate problems.

Hand out an A4 copy of the poems to the pupils. Read the poems with them or invite someone to read them to the class. Ask pupils to work in pairs and underline all the words in each poem that tell you what operation is required. For example, "difference" is "subtract". You could set this as a competition for the class.

Next, put each poem on the wall with a large symbol for the operation and get pupils to help make signs of all the words associated with that operation. Mount these around the poem and symbol. This helps familiarise them in a non-threatening way with the many different ways a question can be asked. Perhaps work with the English department and ask pupils to create their own poems for each operation; they could work in pairs for this.

These could be added to the displays.

Ask pupils to make up their own questions, using each of the words in a single poem for a one-step question (for an extension, combine operations in two-step problems). Get them to write these on strips of card. Label and code the cards, recording on a separate piece of paper the operation to which the question refers. Shuffle their cards, separate them into groups and place them in see-through wallets along with four cards that have either +, - , V, or x. Label the wallets A, B, C, D, etc. Add a crib card to each with the solutions on the cards that are in the wallet.

Get the pupils to work in pairs or groups of four in the next lesson to sort the cards into the different operations, placing the addition questions by the + and so forth. Their solutions can quickly be checked to see if they correctly matched the questions to the operation using the crib card. They could rotate around the room, trying each of the groups. Pupils can then tackle the questions in the wallets and find the answer, having a better idea of what operation is required in each case.


A simple line can mean so much, I don't park! Keep left! Subtract and such An invitation, A contract to subtract.

The notation for generation?

A monumental horizontal, A line to state and dictate The operation and its generation.

We whisk away the items, To decrease as a release Some measure of the amount.

In the plan for less than We have seven before ten for three.

When we portray a take away The sign is a line as a rule.

There's an inference with difference That we have to subtract the two.

For a minus is a sign to us A contraction of subtraction.

A monumental horizontal A line to dictate the process DIVIDE IMPLIED

The quotient is where You divide your share To split the group.

Divide implied By the words?

Or When you divide take a side When you share, have a care When you split, you must quit Owning a quotient is quite potent!

More than words Increase for this a piece and, sum, more than, add a fuss, to plus, the total Addition used as a tradition Multiple words Some are confused, even bemused By the number of words that are heard For multiplication, short for the replication Of addition.

For instance, there's "times" that primes Us to multiply.

When asked for the product we conduct Multiplication.

"Of" course is the source Dictating "times".

What kind of notation for the operation?

Well, there's a cross to imply it's multiply.

A dot for the elite, something real neat Or, perhaps a bracket to packet The sum, dictating times.

Some are confused, even amused By the number of signs we use to define Multiplication, short for the replication Of addition.

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