Sweet everythings

13th June 1997 at 01:00
SWEET COUNTER. By Christine Mayo. Photocopiable booklet, plus pack . Pounds 17.02 plus VAT, plus Pounds 2 pp per set. PO Box 472, Kingston, Surrey KT2 7ZW. Tel: 0973 152064

Teacher Christine Mayo has produced this place value (hundreds, tens and units) resource for primary schools and particularly for the teachers of children with special educational needs.

The pack's laminated coloured cards depict sweet jars (100s), boxes (10s) and strips of individual sweets to cut up into units. The value of the jars and boxes is written in numerals on the front and words on the back. The cards are attractive and a good size for small hands.

Place value is more often than not reinforced using such structured apparatus as Dienes Base Ten equipment or Multilink. Each has its advantages and disadvantages. Dienes cubes are small and fiddly for young children (and difficult for children with certain physical disabilities to pick up), are often miscounted and mislaid, but make an easy transition to 10s, with solid marked rods, and 100s, with solid marked squares.

Multilink is easier to handle (though some disabled children cannot push the pieces together or use the 100s boards), but 10s can be miscounted and tend to fall apart as the equipment ages. Both pieces of apparatus attempt to bridge the link between counting real objects and symbolic representations, by providing something which is "context-free" yet tactile and moveable. Many children, however, find it difficult to make the link between the real object and the equipment, or the equipment and the symbols.

The Sweet Counter material, with its pictures of individual sweets, attempts to remedy this. However, I can foresee problems with this material too. Ms Mayo describes a common problem with place value: that when asked to write down 132, children will often write 10032. She claims that Sweet Counter will help solve this problem.

I suspect, however, that they are more likely to make this mistake when the numbers 100 and 10 are written in front of them, than with the more obvious single entity of the rod and flat of Dienes equipment. I have to admit, though, to not having tried Sweet Counter with children.

Decomposition (the breaking down of 100s or 10s in order to do a subtraction sum) would also seem to be less well catered for with Sweet Counter. One of the strengths of structured apparatus is that a rod (or a strip of Multilink) and 10 units are so obviously the same that an exchange is easily accepted. In Sweet Counter, there is a visual difference which requires a leap of faith or a more sophisticated understanding of equivalence, the size of 10 single sweets being much greater than a box of 10.

Being flat, the pieces will be difficult for some physically disabled children to pick up.

Christine Mayo's new resource offers an improvement in some areas over standard place value material, but does raise a few problems. It would be a helpful addition to use alongside other material, and, as it is quite inexpensive, would not represent an extravagant extra.

Annie Owen is a maths lecturer at Homerton College, Cambridge

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