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Maths staff prefer the practical to parroting

'Fun' methods help boys grasp the basics as Carol Vorderman criticises 'dumbing down' of the subject

The humble abacus can still be found in primary classes, but these days it is more likely to be used as a colourful toy than for counting. Reciting times tables parrot-fashion is also now considered passe.

Puzzles and number lines have overtaken more traditional methods of teaching maths as the focus has shifted towards the more practical elements under the foundation phase curriculum. Learning through play has been hailed as the way to help pupils - especially boys - grasp basic concepts.

But Carol Vorderman, former Countdown host, caused controversy last week by claiming that GCSE maths had been "dumbed down". The Welsh-born TV personality announced she would head a Conservative party investigation into maths teaching in England.

But teachers in Wales protested this week that "fun" maths was better than traditional methods. Sian Nugent, a teacher at Cardiff's Caerau Nursery, said practical methods were invaluable for introducing young children to numbers: "Parents sometimes think their child can count to 10, but that doesn't mean they understand what they're doing. We need to help children learn the 'one-ness' of one."

But numeracy remains an issue in Wales. Last year, maths was the only subject that did not improve in key stage 1 teacher assessments. The recent chief inspector's report found that by secondary level a fifth of schools had shortcomings in developing pupils' number skills.

One simple yet effective method used widely by foundation phase teachers is to fold a large piece of fabric to show how the different shapes - squares, triangles etc - relate to each other. They also use outdoor areas to teach youngsters to count objects such as teddy bears hidden around the garden, or to measure their height against a tree.

Dianne Williams, maths adviser for the education and school improvement service, which serves four Welsh authorities, believes the practical curriculum will pay off: "Children do very little number work at home these days; they tend to do a lot with computers. The new curriculum reflects the importance of 21st-century contexts. My personal opinion is that it works."

Although traditional methods remain important, she said they were taught more creatively now: "There's less repetition in the old way. Children have many more techniques to choose from. Secondary teachers are noticing that primary children are being taught many more methods to do things than before. For example, in long multiplication there are now several ways children can find the answer."

Variety has always been a mark of good teaching, she said, but now there is more emphasis on addressing different learning styles.

At Howell's independent girls' school in Cardiff, traditional skills are valued, but in a contemporary way. Sally Davis, its principal, said junior pupils still learnt times tables, but parents were also encouraged to play maths tapes in the car.

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