Plus and minus

20th June 1997 at 01:00

By Ruth Merttens, David Kirby, David Lamb, Ginn. Teacher cards Pounds 24.50. Resource pack Pounds 59.50 plus VAT. Textbooks Pounds 3.99 each. Answer Book Pounds 5.99. Numeracy Support Book. Abacus 3 Pounds 15; Abacus 4 Pounds 18.50. Photocopy masters Pounds 39.50. Teacher's book Pounds 9.50. Challenge book (Abacus 4 only) Pounds 18.50. Simmering activities Pounds 6.99. Full kit (includes 32 textbooks). Abacus 3 - Pounds 474 (saving Pounds 53.53). Abacus 4 - Pounds 500 (saving Pounds 56.52). Half kit (includes 16 textbooks). Abacus 3 - Pounds 302 (saving Pounds 34.01). Abacus 4 - Pounds 325 (saving Pounds 40)

The teaching sessions are effective, but Shirley Clarke finds gaps in some pupil activities in the key stage 2 Abacus maths scheme

Direct teaching lies at the heart of the key stage 2 Abacus mathematics scheme. It is spelt out in the file of teacher's cards which takes a systematic route through specific skills, with a strong focus on mental methods and games.

The teaching activities are supported by effective resources: number cards, grids, interlocking cubes and number lines. Children are encouraged to join in, chant and use their fingers. Graded follow-up activities are set out on the backs of the cards. These are very practical and well designed, with some use of calculators, but they are directly tied to the initial teaching session, so further activities need to be found in the parallel resources to allow for differentiation.

A serious omission is the lack of activities where children use their own number lines, one of the most powerful resources available.

The teaching sessions are generally effective, especially for place value, shape and measures, and mental strategies are taught before any recording. But the taught sessions on standard algorithms on the blackboard made me feel as if I had stepped back 50 years. At least there are two methods of subtraction taught, but children's own recording based on their own paper and pencil or mental methods doesn't appear, although this is included in the national curriculum. I can't imagine a classroom that wouldn't have children either calling out the answers as soon as they saw the sum on the board or who would not be able to keep up.

There is a "kinaesthetic" approach (linking a series of finger folds and movements with a series of facts to be remembered) to learning tables and number bonds, which seems rather elaborate, but good old chanting and alternative approaches are also shown. I particularly like the approach to division, where it is converted immediately into a multiplication problem (for example, 35 divided by 5 means how many 5s make 35?).

The traditional pupil practice textbooks are about the best of their type I have seen. The instructions are very concise and set in speech bubbles, so reading and deciphering is at a minimum. The activities are clear and easy to follow. The occasional "Explore" activities at the foot of the page are usually much more interesting and open-ended than the main activity. I would like to have seen these integrated throughout the books. There are also a few practical at-home activities available as photocopiable masters. The photocopy master activities are also an asset, with many opportunities for children to work in a less structured way.

The numeracy support book is aimed at children with difficulties or statements. Instead of direct teaching there is a list of strategies and resource styles which the teacher uses to help children while they are working through the accompanying activities. The approach and the content are excellent, again focusing on practical tasks and co-operative activities, but without the whole class direct teaching.

Pack 4's challenge book summarises the skills covered, referencing all the available activities for that skill, then adding an open-ended investigative idea for children who have finished the rest of the work.

The book of "simmering" activities contains lots of brief one-off things to do when there are two or three minutes to spare, like "fizz buzz", again encouraging mental agility and revision.

The teacher's book is comprehensive, taking you through the approach and the component parts of the scheme and including photcopiable grids of "can do" statements for each child.

Manageability and differentiation are the key issues for Abacus. If teaching is directed to the whole class there will be many who are either bored or lost. If directed to a group, the teacher has to manage the rest of the class and develop a rota system of teaching groups.

A laudable feature is that each child gets a fresh start for each new area of maths, but, bearing in mind that confidence is the key to being a successful mathematician, there is a risk that each new start will result in further failure to understand.

Shirley Clarke is a lecturer in the assessment, guidance and effective learning department at London University's Institute of Educationu Key stage 1 of Abacus was reviewed on September 6, 1996

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