Getting a handle on Maths

Today’s blog is written by Sarah Dickenson, Meta Prep’s Head of Maths.

I feel like I’ve been teaching maths a lifetime; 25 years is really a whole generation!  The journey has been massively rewarding; you can easily make such a difference to the way children feel. It is not only about their ability in mathematics, but about watching them go from feeling a failure to loving the subject, with often surprisingly few adjustments, and succeeding beyond their wildest expectations.

Effort and time pays dividends

Like all things worth doing, a bit of time and effort is necessary, and in reality less than most children think. For many children, basic arithmetic is slow, tough and full of errors. My usual diagnosis is that no one has pushed them to learn tables at lightning speed or to know their basic number bonds like the back of their hand. Neither of these skills require any ability, just good old fashioned repetition. Through years of teaching children, I often saw some in Years 4 and 5, who found maths tricky, but decided they wanted to be top in the school in the times table league. This grit and determination stood them in good stead. Within half a term, they had succeeded and were above children in Year 8. 

Ask a child their name, they can tell you instantly because they have heard it 100’s of times.  This is the same principle for arithmetic. Hear it and say it enough times, without allowing thinking time. If they hear it often enough, every child can hear the number, say, 42 and instantly link to 6 and 7. The children who won the inter-house mental arithmetic challenge every year had parents who ran through arithmetic on the way to school every morning.  With time, they were able to cope with harder and harder calculations in their head. They were succeeding beyond what they originally thought possible.  

Maths skills

It all starts with knowledge! By recalling times tables and number bonds with speed, fractions, percentages, decimals, ratio, algebra, word problems, long multiplication and division all become MUCH easier. Headspace and effort is then used to recall methods and unravel new information, rather than stumbling and struggling at the first hurdle. Instead of time taken working out how many times 4 goes into 32, they can leap into the actual question. Tests taken under timed conditions, like the 11+ exams, are completed accurately and more quickly. Their scores jump up without deepening their understanding of 11+ topics.

Of course, there are children who struggle to process information efficiently and to remember the many topics, facts and methods. However, I can categorically say that having taught over 500 children with learning difficulties and seeing them get a handle on maths, this is not limited advice. By starting with the insistence that times tables and number bonds must be known thoroughly and be able to be used at speed, pretty soon they can see the results for themselves and become more confident.  

Visual Prompts

Many children benefit from “hooks” or visual prompts for topic methods. One of my favourites is WSA also known as “Whoopee! Simple Arithmetic”, this stands for Whole numbers, Same denominator, Add or subtract the tops. We use this method to help children with addition and subtraction of fractions, notoriously a tricky skill. An instant hook is created when you ask a child to clarify WSA and what it stands for. It is easier to remember the details and method.  Another one I love using is mantras and encouraging children to repeat them many times in small, regular spaced sessions of 5 minutes. My own version of running a Yoga class! This is less than dressing in your PJ’s or brushing your teeth! Let me give you an example relating to pie charts: a pupil should repeat, “whatever the fraction or percentage of the pie is the same fraction or percentage of the data.” If they can quote this to themselves when seeing a pie chart, it will guide them and remind them how to solve any related problem.  

Ideally, children should try to create their own mnemonics and pictures, or “hooks” which are memorable and visual. Perhaps you have a child at home who is struggling with a method, get them to look up the information and create their own picture or hook.

Taking responsibility

Of course, Mathematics requires understanding and not just a pile of memory prompts to trot out. However, I cannot emphasise enough the power and security that comes from having prompts, images and mantras which pop into their head covering the basic skills. I regularly give parents a list of all the basic topics with their associated “hooks” and remind them to ask their child to repeat them a few times a week, in short sessions, spaced out.  Soon, their child knows they know the basic facts and methods, a key metacognitive skill. They feel empowered, they can answer basic questions and will have time and brain space to tackle the next level of difficulty of questions. Success breeds success!

Wondering how you can help your child get a handle on Maths? This summer we are running a Maths Skills course and an Expert Learner course.

Resources Sarah recommends:

There are so many great online resources; on phones, ipads and computers, which make learning tables easy and fun. Choose those which are competing against others or a clock and which require instant recall, rather than any which repeat tables by rote. There is use for learning by rote, but the next step is instant recall and for the child to link numbers automatically. 

For starters:

  1. Arcademics
  2. Quizlet with Meta Prep