Education: Working it out together

If children are taught simple numbers while they are in their high chairs, their school maths benefits.

Maths is a subject which, in the past, we have allowed ourselves to be bad at. Adults rarely, if ever, say "I'm hopeless at reading", whereas quite a number cheerfully admit to being "terrible at maths".

This attitude colours the way we regard our children's mathematical learning. Virtually all parents these days are ready and willing to have a go at helping their children read, but many feel unqualified to help with maths and prefer to leave this subject entirely in the school's domain.

The Government's National Numeracy Strategy, however, hopes to change the way we view maths. From this September, the "daily mathematics lesson," a less contentious cousin of the national literacy hour, will be operating in every primary classroom in the country.

Like the literacy hour, it is tightly structured, comprising a 10-minute whole class session of mental maths, about 40 minutes of group work on activities or written tasks and a final 10-minute whole class "plenary". It should be pacy and varied, the emphasis on mental calculation and talking about ideas and processes.

Although fairly prescriptive, the mathematics lesson has not, in its three years in pilot schools - where it began life as the National Numeracy Project - encountered anything like the hostility that the literacy hour faced; perhaps because many teachers feel less certain of their maths teaching and actually welcome its highly structured approach to lessons.

Parents, too, stand to benefit: an approach which encourages talking about maths and working things out in your head, is, potentially, much more accessible to parents. And the more involved the parents, the better for the children.

Research shows that parental help and encouragement can make a major contribution to children's success in maths, just as it does in reading. One study in New Zealand, for instance, found that children aged three or four who had learnt to fetch, say, four apples from a larger quantity, did well in maths later on.

"One of the main aims of the strategy is to make sure that children are good at calculating mentally," says Anita Straker, the National Numeracy Strategy director. Although 30 years ago maths teaching placed much more emphasis on rote learning and reciting tables, this country, unlike other parts of Europe and the Far East, has never had a tradition where children learn the techniques of mental calculation, she explains.

Many of today's parents, for instance, confronted with 148+329, or 24x32, would, like me, immediately reach for pencil and paper and set it out as a "tens-and-units" vertical sum. Even 10 years ago, six-year-olds would be setting out 28+6 in that way.

But now vertical sums are out, for younger children at least, and horizontal sums are in: modern children will learn strategies for tackling calculations in their heads wherever possible. Children, for instance, learn doubles and near doubles early on in the Numeracy Strategy and learn how to put the biggest number first when adding three numbers together.

This approach gives children greater flexibility in working things out, and helps them to manipulate numbers, according to Chris Olley, the Strategy director in Birmingham, where pilot schools have been working with it for two to three years. "In Birmingham we are already seeing the effects: children are pulling numbers apart to make them more friendly."

Traditionally minded parents will be relieved to learn that the strategy does require children to learn the multiplication tables by heart - an unfashionable practice in recent times. But the strategy encourages more lively, quickfire ways of practising them than simply chanting by rote, as well as ways of extending these number facts.

"Parents can get a bit too stuck on multiplication tables, and try to do them too young," says Professor Margaret Brown, at King's College, London. "This means you're forever relearning them; children aren't ready for the later tables until they are aged nine or ten."

Parents should remember, too, that maths is not only about number. It is also about weight, shape, space, pattern and position and the language we use to describe these things. The daily lesson now gives more emphasis on shape and space than the numeracy project did in its early days.

Talking about these things is crucial to children's understanding, and the numeracy strategy encourages them to develop their mathematical vocabulary (for instance, young children learnt not just to say "big" but "tall," "deep," "wide" and so on) and to talk about how they would go about solving a problem.

For parents wanting to support their children's learning at home, sharing books can be as beneficial for children's mathematical development as it is for their literacy. In August, Walker Books publish a new series for parents and children, Maths Together (a sequel to Reading Together), an attractive, high-quality collection of stories, poems, rhymes and games focusing on different mathematical areas, such as number, shape, pattern and position.

Devised in collaboration with the maths consultancy Beam (Be A Mathematician), the series aims six books at children of three plus, and six at five plus; each book concludes with useful and friendly ideas for parents on things to talk about, things to play, and things to make.

Books like these help to set maths, and talking about maths, in the context of everyday life. The role for parents, says Grace Cook, a Beam consultant, is to build children's confidence and mathematical thinking so that they learn to describe and explain - and not to put them down if they get an answer wrong.

"Parents tend to think that maths is about the right answers," says Sheila Ebbutt, a Beam director, "but real mathematicians are interested not in right answers but in procedures and lateral thinking; that's what we want to develop in our children."

So if you want to help your child with maths, don't rush out to the supermarket and buy "Help your child with maths" type publications, stuffed with tension- inducing formal pencil-and-paper tasks. Instead, look around and notice the practical mathematical opportunities that so many of our daily activities present - cooking, counting money, laying the table and DIY jobs and talk about them.

And don't forget all those good old-fashioned board games, like Snakes and Ladders, where rolling dice, counting squares and adding and subtracting scores, provide not only some excellent maths homework, but a bit of fun too.

WENDY, SIX: I CAN DO SUMS LIKE 20 PLUS 20 IN MY HEAD

IN THE old days, Liz Holland, a Year 1 teacher at Ward End Primary School in Birmingham, would never have dreamt of teaching maths using a painted stick with no numbers on it.

Now, however, two years after the National Numeracy project began at the school, her six-year-olds count backwards and forwards in twos, adding and subtracting with the greatest of ease. Mental calculation is now an integral part of their mathematical diet, and by all appearances the children love it.

"I've been teaching for 20 years, and I feel this is the most wonderful thing," she says. "This has really brought them on, and they're working in their heads with numbers up to 1,000. I enjoy it too."

After the quickfire number games of the oral part of the lesson, the children move into three ability groups - one with Mrs Holland, one with the classroom assistant, one on their own - to work on adding three numbers together. They are encouraged to use a variety of ways of recording their answers: unifix cubes, or drawing dots, as well as written symbols and they work things out in their heads whenever they can.

In the final 10-minute plenary, they talk as a class about what they've done, and about what is planned for the next day.

The pupils radiate enthusiasm: "I like adding four numbers together - my Dad's learning me at home," says Faybian.

"I like doing sums," says Wendy. "It's a bit difficult in my head, but I can do sums like 20 plus 20 is 40."

"I like sums, because they're hard for me," says Nasir. "Sometimes I use my head, sometimes I use fingers or cubes."

Sue Gormley, the head, believes the numeracy strategy has lifted the profile of maths in the school and made it more enjoyable for the children. The school's maths SATs results are also improving.

"Children very early on get the idea they can't do maths, but this has helped them gain confidence."

She thinks that schools starting the maths lesson will find it easier than the literacy hour "because people want help with maths".

Ward End School hopes to run more workshops to explain the strategy to parents as well as to provide boxes for them to borrow, containing mathematical games and activities.

Anne Jones, the maths co-ordinator, says: "We get parents saying they were no good at school, who are scared to help their children - but they are the ones who should benefit from the strategy, because it's fun."

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