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Maths is as easy as un, deux, trois

Revised teaching methods and more mental arithmetic have brought great improvements in primary maths. One Greenock school is taking an advanced approach, reports Eleanor Caldwell

Before their regular 15-minute mental arithmetic lesson, the composite P67 class at Springfield Primary school in Greenock ask their teacher, Eileen Gowans, if today's is to be an English or French session. It's Continental maths mentales today and the class is delighted.

With an old-fashioned numberless metre stick in hand, Mrs Gowans puts the class through their arithmetical paces in French. As she points to each division on the ruler, the class counts aloud to 100. They move on to counting in steps of 10 and five. When the teacher then points rapidly to random marks on the metre stick, the children individually give the numbers in French. They seem to recognise the metre marks immediately and virtually all hands in the class shoot up to answer.

The large awkward numbers of French are, according to the class "no bother at all" and everyone wants to say the hardest number so far: quatre-vingt-quinze (95).

Multiplication tables are next. The two times table is rejected in favour of the nine, "because it's hard!" The class first chants the table and then, when Mrs Gowans asks standard multiplication questions, all are ready to help out when an arithmetical or French mistake is made.

On instructions in French from their teacher, the pupils bring out paper number slips marked one to nine and, with these in front of them, start on harder work. Addition or subtraction sums are to be worked out in their heads and the answer compiled from their slips. On a count of un, deux, trois from Mrs Gowans, they hold up their answers.

Some children say they have done the calculations in French. Others say they find that a quick translation into English is equally efficient. The level of dificulty, speed of response and success rate is impressive. Virtually all answers are correct for sums such as 41 minus 9, 55 plus 13 and 95 minus 50, given in French.

The maths in French lessons, which have been running for two months, is the brainchild of Mrs Gowans, who uses the Heinemann mental maths scheme as a basis. She has capitalised on the fact that the children like both maths and French.

"It seemed natural to bring the two subjects together," she says, "especially maths, since it focuses on a very specific area of language."

The range of ability in the class is from level C to E, Mrs Gowans says, and even the pupils of lower ability have responded well. "It seems to have given them a new confidence."

The 17 pupils are eager to continue maths mentales and at the end of the session for the day they ask if they can play a popular elimination line game in French. Lining up in two teams, the children compete against each other to give the speediest French answer to an English-spoken sum. This is followed, by popular request, by a first trial of a French multiplication version of the popular fizz buzz game, which first needs an English rehearsal to sharpen wits.

Headteacher Irene Watters sees maths mentales as combining key strands of learning. "The combination of whole class teaching, active oral work and constant verbal encouragement really raises self-esteem," she says. "The pupils set their own expectations in a non-threatening setting."

With three French-trained teachers in the school, Mrs Watters says she is interested in extending language teaching to younger classes. "We have to catch their enthusiasm at an early age," she believes.

The P67 pupils award maths and French nine out of 10 as individual class subjects. Maths mentales gets top marks from many. One girl says: "I actually like maths better when it's in French."

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