Number crunching for beginners;Hands on

12th November 1999 at 00:00
Debbie Davies finds that informative and cogent numeracy strategies add up for parents, teachers and pupils alike.

If teachers are struggling to come to terms with the numeracy strategy, then so are parents. Richard Hubbard, maths teacher and information and communications technology (ICT) co-ordinator at Hillside First Primary in Bradwell, Norfolk, finds one of the most difficult demands is communicating to parents what the strategy is about. So is it any real surprise that many parents are foxed by homework sums like 18 multiplied by 4.5?

Not at all, says Hubbard. "Just like you and me, parents will have been taught there was one right way of doing things that relied on setting out and using a rote-learned procedure that we didn't really understand but got us a tick from the teacher," he says. The numeracy strategy requires us to re-learn: "Now we need a range of mental strategies which reflect a clear understanding of numbers and the way they work," he says.

Since many parents struggle to use new technology, it might seem perverse to throw the computer into this situation, but Hubbard is convinced of its value. "Odd ideas about maths abound at the moment. Now maths can be fun, there's more than one way of solving a problem - and understanding why and how are as important as being able to show your work on a piece of paper."

So where can parents working with children at home begin? For general background, the National Grid for Learning (NGFL) has useful information about the numeracy strategy. For practical resources freely available to anyone with Internet access, Ambleside Primary School's website is hard to beat. It has a wealth of self-explanatory games such as Guess The Number, a test of estimation and division that Mark Robinson, the school's ICT teacher, developed from an idea devised by one of his Year 4 pupils.

Many other games on the site use children's ideas. Robinson says: "Children like the interactive maths games and puzzles. Several children have emailed us about Callum's Addition Pyramid that he recently designed for the site. I put it together from his paper designs and children really, really enjoy it."

Another game uses a spreadsheet to show number patterns. Robinson's grids allow you to enter your choice of numbers and the spreadsheet does the sums to generate number patterns. The game also lets you experiment with different number combinations. The fact that Robinson's tools are designed for his own classroom means his resources are simpler than the professionally published equivalent and often easier to use. "We have a number sequencer we developed to fill a gap in the software catalogue and which we use to deliver the simple number line and prediction work within the numeracy period," says Robinson. The program counts forwards and backwards in tens and hundreds, counts into minus values and handles decimals.

But Ambleside's resources support more than numeracy. One of the most successful programs is its interactive geometry section that lets you experiment with shapes: "The geometry section really did make it clear for some of the strugglers in my class. A worksheet is always flat or static but an interactive shapes program on screen lets children see things change and move. You can't replicate that on the board or on paper."

If their children enjoy the Ambleside site, then parents can discover plenty more on the web. One idea would be to join NRICH, an online primary maths club run by University of Cambridge that sets mathematical problems. Members can email their answers and develop a dialogue with one of the maths graduates who run the site and receive training on how to pitch replies depending on the age and ability of the child. That the site is a hit can be measured by the fact that a quarter of all children registered with the club use it from home.

Some schools are choosing to work very closely with parents. This has the advantage of increasing the classroom's hardware by harnessing computers at home. In Kent, Helen Smith, a teacher and contributor to the NGFL, is experimenting with a project that provides pupils with maths tasks on disk to take home. The schools taking part use RM's Success Maker, an expensive and extensive suite of programs with little application for home use. Smith selects exercises from Success Maker and sends them home on disk. The completed work arrives back on disk and is recorded centrally. "The response from parents has been very positive," says Smith.

Another option is dedicated off-line software - this has the benefit of leaving the home telephone line free. Popular primary maths programs on CD-Rom to try include NumberShark from White Space (see review in Online, June 11) and The Number Works, published by Sherston.

Ambleside Primary School Kent Grid for Learning - advice and practical help on using spreadsheets in maths for children aged 7 to 11. National Grid for Learning numeracy strategy. NRICH. NumberShark. Price: pound;59 Whitespace Tel: 0181 748 5927. The Number Works. Price: pound;29.99. Sherston Software. Tel: 01666 843200.

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