Every minute counts;Mathematics

22nd May 1998 at 01:00
Marjorie Gorman says teachers have nothing to fear from the planned numeracy hour's demands for whole-class teaching.

Some teachers fear that introduction of the "numeracy hour" in September 1999, on top of the "literacy hour", will prove too much for an already overloaded curriculum.

But close examination of the National Numeracy Project requirements shows its demands are less daunting than they seem. For a start, the numeracy hour is a period when the whole class focuses on mathematics - 40 minutes a day for Years 1 to 4 and 50 minutes for Years 5 and 6. Many schools already give maths more time than this, so the time factor should be no problem.

In recent years, several local education authorities have set up projects aiming to raise levels of attainment in maths. They recognise that whole-school planning is vital. This means a shift away from published maths schemes, where children mostly work individually, towards working with the whole class to maximise the interaction between pupils and teacher.

The Wakefield Numeracy Initiative, launched in October 1994, is one such scheme. It was designed to help teachers make best use of the revised national curriculum, setting out four steps to improving numeracy.

Pupils should:

* learn the language of numbers - how to read, write and order them * move beyond counting, to explore and use relationships to learnnumber facts * explore mental methods and devisea variety of ways of recordingcalculations * find ways of solving practical numerical problems and checking results.

Based on a mix of whole-class, individual and collaborative activities, the materials gave teachers a guide to coverage and progression, while leaving them free to plan each sequence of lessons.

Working orally with the whole class, teachers could encourage pupils to develop ways of working mentally. They noticed that even young children enjoyed playing with numbers, and encouraging children to talk about what they were doing in their heads helped the teacher gain access to their thinking.

Lessons started with a short period of mental arithmetic involving the whole class, followed by differentiated individual or group activities. Teachers encouraged discussion and made sure good ideas were shared. They also highlighted important links with speaking and listening aspects of the English curriculum and took care with mathematical vocabulary.

Most teachers said they felt more in control of lessons and reported positive reactions from pupils. But some found pupils in Years 5 and 6 who had worked their way through maths schemes individually more reluctant than others to get involved.

Talking about computation methods and ways of answering problems seemed to improve children's thinking about mathematics. Using their mental strategies as a basis for developing written methods seemed sensible.

At one of their termly meetings, mathematics co-ordinators summarised a "commonsense approach" to a typical numeracy lesson as follows: During the introductory part of the lesson (about 10 minutes), the teacher should:

* set the context and share teaching objectives with pupils * revise and make connections with previous lessons * provide opportunities to practise mental work * assess the level of understanding by questioning pupils * introduce the next stage. During the main teaching part of the lesson: (20 to 30 minutes), pupils should:

* work on appropriate tasks in pairs, in groups or individually * be prepared to go to the board to explain their working; while the teacher:

* moves about the classroom, supporting the pupils, assessing progress and extending the task if necessary * can work more intensively with one or two groups * intervenes by stopping the whole class to help overcome a common misunderstanding.

The end of the lesson can be used to:

* bring the children together again to share strategies * recap and consolidate * link to the next stage of learning * if there is time, practise number bonds The main aim was to help pupils develop an understanding of the number system and relationships. Teachers worked on a single aspect of mathematics until most of the class had a sound grasp of the principles before moving on to other work.

Every two weeks or so, a lesson was devoted to assessing pupils' ability to solve number problems. Testing alone does not help raise attainment, but discussing how a range of methods can be used to answer problems can help pupils develop flexibility as well as fluency in their number work.

Working in this way demands few extra resources. Homemade wall charts, number lines and number grids provided a focus for the start of the lesson and gave pupils confidence when they started. Table-top number lines and number grids allowed pupils to work individually or in pairs while practising recently-learned skills. Appropriate sections of published schemes can provide useful activities, as can materials such as Cuisenaire. rods (which may be found tucked away in cupboards).

The challenge was to help children learn important number facts in an interesting and meaningful way. Number cards can be used for "show-me activities". For example, a key stage 1 teacher can say "show me an odd number" or "a number between 6 and 9". At key stage 2, teachers can ask questions such as: "What is my number when I add 10 and divide by 2 to give 6?" As pupils and teachers gain experience they can develop and extend original ideas. The hundred square, often used for illustrating multiples, can be an effective aid to encourage mental addition and subtraction.

The National Numeracy Project has developed many ideas explored informally by earlier initiatives like the one in Wakefield. The framework for planning based on the national curriculum, describing year-by-year learning objectives, provides a useful tool for ensuring continuity and progression. Some of the standards expected might seem high, but schools that have adopted a whole-class approach involving pupils closely in their own learning, have found a general improvement in levels of attainment.

Marjorie Gorman is an experienced primaryand advisory teacher now working as a freelance consultant. She is the author, with Alan Wigley, of 'The Vocabulary Book: Success in Mental Arithmetic', published by Ginn in the autumn

* Useful publications

MATHEMATICAL VOCABULARY, National Numeracy Project, Beam

NUMERACY lESSONS, National Numeracy Project, Beam

NUMBER GRIDS AND TILES. By David Fielker and Fran Mosley, Beam


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