Picture this

15th October 2004 at 01:00
Maths questions are easier for pupils to answer if teachers illustrate them with graphics, argues Tandi Clausen-May

IMuch time and effort are put into providing modified test papers for pupils with special assessment needs. Although sometimes essential, modifications should be a last, not a first, resort. Any test intended to be used by the whole year group in a mainstream school should be designed to be accessible as it stands to as wide a range of pupils as possible.

There is a lot that can be done. Simple language, with short, direct sentences, will help many pupils access the questions. Names may be useful here - so "Kim heated the water until it boiled", for example, is more accessible than "The water was heated until it boiled". Pictures may help to convey the story: "Mike caught the bus", for instance, may conjure up a rather cofusing image of Mike literally "catching" the bus in his hands. A picture of a boy getting on to a bus will make this clearer.

Pupils who favour a visual rather than an aural and symbolic learning style may find a diagram more comprehensible than a string of symbols printed on the page. For example, in the course of developing age-standardised maths tests we trialled two versions of what is effectively the same question.

What we found was that 58 per cent of 1,300 eight- to fourteen-year-olds were able to answer the version with the graphic Rectangle (top), but only 38 per cent of a matched sample answered Fraction (above) , although this was the same question mathematically. Another question in the series that offers graphical access to a numerical concept is Reciprocals (left). This question is carefully structured to build up a mental image of the relationship between a fraction and its multiplicative inverse. The names and graphics help to identify four different inverse relationships. This concept is often difficult for pupils to grasp, but about three quarters of 1,800 Year 9 pupils were able to answer at least part of the question correctly, and nearly a third of them could do it all. The ideas demonstrated in these questions may be taken beyond the test situation, and used in the classroom to make key concepts and procedures comprehensible to pupils who think more easily in pictures than in words or symbols.

Teachers everywhere are seeking to widen their approach, enabling all pupils to engage with their subjects whatever their learning styles. But much of this change will be undermined unless test developers keep pace with a broader range of questions that reflect and support good classroom practice.

Dr Tandi Clausen-May is a research officer with nferNelson

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