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Numbers game lifts the bored

A new maths game is being used to improve numeracy skills, reports Elaine Carlton. Five times five is 10 and nine times zero is nine - according to some 12 and 13-year-old pupils at Oak Farm secondary school in Farnborough.

In a desperate bid to improve numeracy skills, head of maths Penny Moody has invested in alternative methods of teaching - such as cards, dominoes and Arithmatrix, a new board game. Like Scrabble but with numbers, Arithmatrix uses a board and tiles. Each player picks six numbers and must use them to create sums on the board.

"We felt we'd been neglecting numeracy, but it's high on the agenda with inspectors and advisers so now we're concentrating on it," says Ms Moody. "The curriculum in junior schools has broadened so much that the amount of time they spend on teaching numeracy has been diluted."

This in turn is a problem for the secondary sector. But Arithmatrix has proved a hit with Ms Moody's pupils, who often find it far more interesting than "real" maths lessons. The symbols include plus, minus, multiply and divide and there are ladybird tiles that can be used as jokers when pupils get stuck. Points depend on the complexity of your sum and, as in Scrabble, whether it covers the bonus spaces on the board.

Paul McDonald and Luke Murphy, both 12, say they find maths difficult but that the game has helped them. "You have to think a lot but you do learn sums you couldn't do before and you remember them after," says Paul.

Terri De-Zilk, 13, bought the game herself and plays at home with her mother. She says she had no problem with pluses and minuses but got stuck on multiplication and division: "It helps with the basics of maths, and my divisions have now got quicker."

There are problems, however. If they are not supervised properly, pupils can create sums which are wrong, and no one corrects them. One group built a sum using five minus nine equals four. This was corrected only when a teacher spotted the mistake and suggested the pair create another sum using the same numbers. And although pupils love the competitive element, they are liable to cheat if teachers fail to keep an eye out.

Another problem is that pupils often try to stick to simpler sums they know are right rather than to learn new ones. They are also happier using their plus and minus signs, avoiding division and multiplication.

Iain Clark, number two in the maths department at Oak Farm, believes games are a crucial tool for livening up the subject. "For a subject like maths, which a lot of people think is dead boring, you need something that pupils really enjoy to get across the more tedious aspects of the curriculum," he says.

Almost 30 per cent of children at the school are special needs students, and Ms Moody believes that for these pupils the game is particularly useful. Margaret Williams, special needs assistant at Oak Farm, says pupils are fascinated by Arithmatrix despite a complete lack of interest in ordinary maths. "When it comes to playing the game, they're learning without realising what they're doing," she says.

Ed Silverwood and Les Berridge, who invented Arithmatrix, can be contacted on 01703 266 831

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