No oblongs allowed

6th December 2002 at 00:00
I have to confess I was astounded by the story of one Reception teacher that appeared on the primary chatroom of The TES website ( This teacher had been "officially ticked off" for using the word "oblong" with her class as "it does not appear in the mathematics framework until Year 4". My immediate reaction was one of sadness for the young teacher's plight mixed with incomprehension, particularly as I found use of the word "oblongs" had been suggested in the new National Numeracy Strategy guidance for early years practitioners.

This particular controversy about oblongs and rectangles, however, has been going on for as long as I can remember. Working as a maths advisory teacher, I was constantly asked which word was correct. I prefer rectangle myself as it is a more mathematical word, and I am quite happy to regard a square as a special case of rectangle. However, some people, when thinking about the set of rectangles, need another word for the non-squares and oblong is a perfectly good word to use to describe such shapes. Such dogmatism about what young children can learn and when is misguided. On the whole I welcomed the NNS vocabulary book as useful guidance as to what mathematical language we should expect from primary children. But it needs to be used as guidance, not as a rigid framework. The idea that young children cannot cope with two names for the same thing is ridiculous - they know they call their mother "mum" but their grandma always calls her by her first name.

Children love the sound of many of the words like rectangle, triangle and hexagon, and they enjoy saying the words. Sometimes they get it wrong and talk about "red tangles" and "blue tangles", because they are the colours of the plastic shapes, but such mistakes can be a useful starting point for a discussion about the correct words.

One Year 2 boy, when sorting some 3-D shapes, was intrigued by a particular box. He asked me for the name of the shape. I told him it was a parallelepiped (a solid body upon which each face is a parallelogram). He repeated the word. He went round chanting the word for days, telling everyone who came into the classroom about this shape with the magical name.

The name of this shape is not required knowledge, even at Year 6, but the thrill of learning about it gave this child the incentive to learn about the ones he needed to know for Year 2.

In retrospect, I wonder if I too should I have been ticked off?

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