Hat tricks;Maths

29th October 1999 at 01:00
With a set of numbered hats, Mel Lever helped Reception and Year 1 dyslexic children progress from sequential counting to adding mixed quantities in their heads.

Begin to add three single-digit numbers mentally (totals up to about 20) or three two-digit numbers with the help of apparatus (totals up to 100). Know by heart: all addition and subtraction facts for each number to at least 10; all pairs of numbers with a total of 20; all pairs of multiples of 10 with a total of 100". The National Numeracy Strategy This is a laudable aim. Wouldn't it be great if we recognised the target, set up impressively well-thought- out lessons, delivered them and found that our Year 2 children lapped up all our words of wisdom, all our actions, understood them and performed accordingly? Could it be that simple? I won't speak for the mainstream school, but at Fairley House School for children with dyslexia, in London, where I am maths co-ordinator, it is certainly not that simple.

This term we have started working within the National Numeracy Strategy, adapting it to our needs. In-service training last year introduced teachers to the strategy's ideas and we began trying its suggestions for lesson plans. We have also been focusing on the language of maths and on mental arithmetic, finding materials from publisher BEAM Education particularly useful. I felt the strategy backed up my ideas on the importance of the development of mathematical language and the need to include mental arithmetic in a structured way into our curriculum. However, our 96 children do not fit neatly into the framework of the stategy. Dyslexic children, for many reasons, do not learn in the way envisaged by document-compiling inspectors. Last year we found that our youngest children, aged six and seven, had great difficulty in achieving what we can now refer to as the "key objectives" of the numeracy strategy for Reception and Year 1. Teachers have to be well informed about dyslexia and the difficulties individual children have, but they also need to be creative in finding ways to access their paths of learning. What follows is just one of the ways we found.

In a discussion among teachers a particular point which emerged was : "No matter what is tried, the children cannot understand counting on. Just understanding quantity is difficult for them. But if they are adding, say, 5 and 2, they always count 1, 2, 3, 4, 5 ... 6, 7."

They could never keep one of the quantities in their head and then count on the other, even though a teacher would have already tried to get them to keep the bigger quantity in their head and count on the smaller one.

I recalled a dyslexic child I had taught once a week for a year. Whenever we added two numbers we would say together, for instance, '8 in my head (pointing to our heads)... 9, 10.' It took ages to get him to go one step further.

But that had also been tried. We agreed that the children needed to "see and do" things more than other children did. They needed to "have" the number to put in their head.

So we began to discuss how we could physically give these six and seven-year-olds the numbers, give them the experience they needed to grasp the concept. Dyslexic children often find it difficult to understand early number concepts. They may not remember counting sequence, and will have difficulty in seeing patterns. At a very basic level, the children often have problems in understanding that a numeral can be attached to a quantity and is not just part of a sequence in "counting", like the characters in the alphabetic sequence. Many dyslexic children need to use concrete aids and examples for longer than the average child does. Many children in key stage 2 will need to count on their fingers, use number lines or 100 squares, because they have difficulty in seeing number patterns. Mental arithmetic for them becomes a chore.

We have a good selection of commercial materials available at school, which teachers had used in very creative ways. But we needed something more. Beads had been tried. What about standing groups of children around the room and then putting them together? A bit difficult with a class of five children, or even of ten. I realised that we needed to use movement.

"Yes, they need to able to move about and move quantities at the same time," said one teacher. "But we've done that: we've moved counters, andwe've moved cards on the table."

"Hats!" I exclaimed. "They need to have the numbers with them and move with the numbers." I decided to make 12 hats, each with a different appearance. Each hat would have a numeral from 0 to 10 attached to it and two would have the numeral 5. Then I needed 10 children and two adults.

Some days later 10 children and two teachers assembled in the hall. I showed the children the 13 hats with their numerals attached. I also showed them 10 cards with numerals 0 to 10 on them, together with a matching dot pattern. I explained the first game to the children. The aim was to find how much we had if we added two numbers together. Each child picked a hat to wear. They then had to pick up a card as directed by the teacher. They had to say the number on their hat, count on the number on the card, touching the dots if they wanted, and give a total.

The game was a great success. The children enjoyed the movement involved and they liked choosing their hats. At first they tended to forget the number once it was on their head, out of sight, but soon began to remember the number without taking a second peep. This was good practice in memory training for children who find it difficult to retain information.

In a new game, five children were given hats and five were given cards. The five with hats had to find a child with a card that had a number that could be added to their own number to give a certain total. The next game required everyone to wear a hat, including the two teachers. We all had to find a card which, when it was added to the number on our hat, would give a total of 10.

In the final game everyone had to wear a hat and find a partner so that the total number arrived at after adding the numbers on our hats was 10. This is where we needed two 5s.

The children began to try to be the first to find the correct cards or partners. Soon they could remember some of the pairs. These children became more confident and competent in adding two numbers together. I am now trying other ways of adapting this game for use with larger numbers and older children - we'll see what they think about wearing funny hats!

Mel Lever is maths co-ordinator at Fairley House School for dyslexic children, south London.

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