Star role and support cast;Numeracy

2nd July 1999 at 01:00
Anita Straker introduces five pages of reviews with a look at the place of resources in the daily maths lesson.

The most crucial resource in the daily mathematics lesson is the teacher. While textbooks can help, the real answer lies in improving teachers' knowledge of maths and their teaching skills.

One aim of the National Numeracy Strategy is to give teachers confidence to spend more time on teaching the whole class, and less time on asking children to work individually through textbooks. The Numeracy Task Force therefore recommended that as much funding as possible should be put into training and school-based support for teachers and release for teachers to observe demonstration lessons.

But to maximise the effectiveness of mathematics lessons, teachers need to draw on a range of basic resources, most of which schools already have. Each classroom needs a board - not just a flip chart, useful though this is. The board needs to be big enough for several examples to be shown in full, and for diagrams and graphs to be sketched on it. Position it so that both teacher and children can use it with ease. Each classroom needs a large, long number line, perhaps fitted below the board, where children can touch it. A "washing line" of numbers strung across the room is useful, and tabletop number lines for individual use. Younger children enjoy using number tracks made from carpet tiles, or marked on the floor of the hall or playground. Years 1 to 4 can make good use of large and small 100-squares to model calculations with two-digit numbers.

Base-10 apparatus has a place. It helps to show how larger numbers and decimals can be broken into parts, although sometimes children learn to manipulate the pieces without ever transferring their understanding to the number system. Always use digit cards alongside the pieces to help overcome this. The same applies to a spike abacus.

Equip children with their own pack of digit cards 0 to 9 to hold up when answering questions in whole-class. Two-digit numbers can be formed from cards held side-by-side. Younger children can use their fingers, both for counting and for showing answers to questions. Place value cards allow numbers to be built up by overlapping cards of different widths.

Enough resources should be kept in each classroom so that groups can work when needed with counters, interlocking cubes, wooden cubes, pegs and pegboard, straws, rulers, coins, dominoes and dice. Older pupils need calculators to use once their mental calculations are secure, and it is useful for the teacher to have an overhead projector for demonstrations.

The classroom library corner should have some interesting books on mathematics and mathematical dictionaries suitable for the age of the children. Each class needs ready access to a good range of number games, measuring equipment, sets of shapes and construction kits. You may need particular equipment, books and materials to support pupils with special needs: for example, tactile dice, books and activity sheets in large print, "talking" calculators, and so on.

Teachers also need some support from textbooks and teachers' books. Most schools already have one or more published schemes. For activities and practice exercises for class work and homework there are many useful books of suggestions for teachers and pupils produced by educational publishers, mathematical associations, local education authorities and others.

Computer software can be another valuable resource for the daily mathematics lesson. Most schools with pupils in key stages 1 and 2 don't have enough computers for all the children to do the same activity simultaneously. But a single computer can be used with the whole class, if the monitor is large enough, or with a largish group of six to eight pupils. Individual children can be asked to come to the keyboard to enter an instruction or a response. The teacher's role is to demonstrate, explain and question, stimulate discussion, and invite predictions and interpretations of what is displayed.

Individual use of computer programs is usually inappropriate in the daily lesson, except where pupils with profound special educational needs or exceptional abilities are doing individual work. But fun programs for practising number skills independently, or for investigating a mathematical problem with a partner, have a valuable part to play in breaks and at home.

Getting good software to use with a whole class or large group can be difficult. Look out for three kinds: software that acts as a super visual aid, perhaps modelling the place value system, or showing how shapes can be transformed; software which works more rapidly than people, perhaps a database which stores, retrieves and displays data in a variety of graphs and charts; and software that allows exploration of mathematical ideas, perhaps number patterns on a grid, or the distances and angles needed to move a robot or screen "turtle" along a path.

The videos in the NNS training packs show how to use many of these resources. And if they are organised well and their use planned carefully, then the most will be made of them.

Anita Straker is director of the National Numeracy Strategy

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