What a scorcher

6th July 2001 at 01:00
A 'sizzling' maths scheme is boosting pupils' confidence. Carolyn O'Grady reports

Simon, Tom, Chris and Andrew are getting ready for some warm, hot and scorching maths and even for some volcanic, explosive or sizzling maths. They all look suitably fired up at the prospect. They settle down to work happily, looking relaxed, and the lesson fairly crackles along. It was not always like this: two years ago most of these boys, now in Year 9, would have come to maths with signs of extreme lack of enthusiasm and confidence, kindled perhaps by years of frustration and classroom failure. They are among the more than one million children in the UK who have speech and language impairment and, though maths is sometimes perceived as in some way a language-free zone, "it is, in fact, full of language and often very difficult language", says their mathematics teacher Bonnie Holland, and an obstacle course for these children.

Bonnie Holland is one of a team comprising teachers, speech and language therapists, special educational needs assistants and a part-time occupational therapist who work in the I CAN Language Resource at Broadwater School, a mainstream secondary in Godalming, Surrey. The Resource is one of four in the UK set up by I CAN, an educational charity for children with speech and language difficulties, to support young people in secondary schools. Some 30 children attend some lessons in the Resource and others in mainstream classes, where they are supported by I CAN Resource staff.

"Our pupils need a language framework in which to place maths," says Bonnie Holland. The idea of + meaning "add", "plus" and "total" or the term "find the difference" meaning "subtract" can be very confusing to children with speech and language impairment, but they do not just have problems with distinguishing and saying words. Understanding, concentration and memory may also be impaired. Pupils often have trouble with sequencing, conceptual thinking, organising their thoughts and memory - all vital ingredients of numeracy. In some cases they may not be able to find words or put them in the right order even though they know exactly what they want to say.

How best to help these pupils unlock their mathematical ability was the question Bonnie Holland and speech and language therapist Helen Ortner asked themselves two years ago. What they eventually came up with was Warm, Hot and Scorching maths, a description suggested by PE lessons. In maths too you have to first warm up, in this case using your mental muscles. Each lesson starts with warm maths, which involves going over the previous lesson's learning, and doing some practice exercises. Pupils then move on to hot maths - exercises which are a little harder, and finally they get to scorching maths, which challenges them further. No pressure is put on pupils to complete all the examples on the board; some only get half-way through hot maths, for example, but in the next lesson the hot maths topic will become the warm maths topic, so everyone covers the ground. Occasionally maths becomes volcanic or sizzling, in other words the children go to even higher levels.

Both teachers use lots of visual stimuli and memory aids, for example in a lesson on ratio, Helen Ortner produces a paint tray and mixes paint and pupils are introduced to different ways of working, so that they can find the one that suits them or is appropriate. "I'm helping them look for their best learning method, not imposing a method," says Bonnie Holland.

Other ingredients of the approach include getting the pupils to explain at the whiteboard how they go about solving a set problem which helps them practice language verbally, and reinforces what they have learned and their presentation skills. And, very importantly, Helen Ortner and Bonnie Holland go to great lengths to establish a classroom environment of understanding and tolerance, for example role-playing a session in which the teacher is excited by mistakes because then she knows what her pupil needs to learn. They also explain to the pupils that their difficulties have nothing to do with their ability but with their speech and language impairment.

Flexibility is very important. Often the staff will come across a problem they have not anticipated, and "learning will collapse". When the word "unit" as in hundreds, tens and units was introduced, for example, the children initially found the word impossible to cope with. For them, unit was a special needs unit, and they found it very difficult to understand that words mean different things in different contexts. Helen Ortner took over and spent a lot of the lesson "uncluttering" the word. In this case it was "a therapist repair job", but it might equally be the teacher who does the repair - the two work seamlessly together.

Often a concept is explained by first working out what it is not. In the lesson on ratio - a simple idea in mathematical terms but very difficult in terms of language - Simon is shown the ratio 3:1. He asks: "Does it have something to do with clocks?" Others think it may be a colon or a decimal point. Having established what they think it might mean, but doesn't, teacher and therapist can move on to explaining what it does mean. It is carefully thought out and fun, and it seems to be working.

Gradually more pupils are being integrated into mainstream for maths, supported by Resource staff. Bonnie Holland says: "If maths was a taste experience it used to be a plain biscuit, now it is a chocolate eclair. Pupils' attitudes to maths have changed. There are no longer groans or complaints about the subject as if it was a nasty medicine. Pupils want to feast on the maths experiences provided."

* Further information can be obtained from: I CAN, 4 Dyer's Buildings, Holborn, London EC1N 2QP. Tel: 0870 010 4066. E-mail: ican@ican.org.uk. Web: www.ican.org.uk.

I CAN is organising a Warm, Hot, Scorching Maths day course at its London office on October 8.


Suggestions for maths teachers working with pupils with speech and language impairment.

* Use a lot of visuals.

* Get the pupils to practice mathematical language out loud.

* Make sure mathematical experiences are successful. Have a structure that doesn't change * Keep your own language simple, with short sentences. Don't switch between different ways of explaining things. Emphasise important words. Don't create a language overload. Too much new language will confuse pupils. First find out how they interpret or understand a word, then teach its meaning in a mathematical context.

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