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Higher, Faster, Harder? Supporting More Able Mathematical Learners

Using and applying word cloud

Harder, Faster, Higher? – Supporting More Able Mathematical Learners

The new curriculum, we are told, is a mastery curriculum.  This means there is an expectation that instead of pushing our more able learners on to ever higher level curriculum content, the focus is much more on making sure all our children are secure with the core content for each year group.  This leaves us with a challenge for our more able learners, but also with a great opportunity.  With less pressure (we assume – the assessment procedures are not yet clear) to push these children through the levels, we have to think of different ways to challenge them – not so much higher and faster as broader and richer content.  These are a few ideas about how we can support these children.

Open ended questions

Challenging more able children should not be primarily about moving them on to ‘harder’ questions with higher numbers.   We want to extend their thinking by asking more open ended questions which challenge them to apply their knowledge in new ways.   We also want to develop their reasoning skills by asking them to explain their reasoning.   Using Bloom’s question stems can be helpful in planning this.  Ask children to explain how to find the answer to a problem and decide which approaches would be best to use.  Ask them to explain the rule for a growing pattern or to explain what would happen if …  Get them to think of other ways of doing things and compare approaches to decide which is best.  Challenge them to explain their reasoning so that a younger child could understand it.

Mathematically rich activities

Children need to learn to think mathematically and to apply their skills.   The Nrich website provides lots of games, challenges and activities to encourage this.  They aim for activities to be ‘low threshold, high ceiling’ ie.  accessible to as many children as possible but with enough to challenge more able children.  Their curriculum mapping documents are very useful in identifying activities which link to different curriculum areas.


Investigations can help children to extend their mathematical thinking in a more open-ended way.  Typically in an investigation, children are given a starting-point and some ideas of how to get started, but they won’t know what the answer will look like.  They need to look for patterns and identify what is happening.  The Maths Warriors site has a number of interesting investigations suitable for primary aged children.


More able children often respond well to challenges.   The ‘Mathematical Challenges for more able pupils’   have a number of challenges divided by age group.  Another good source of challenges for KS2 are the Challenge cards on the Maths Warriors site.

Problem Solving

Whenever a new skills is taught and learned, make sure the children have the opportunity to practise their skills in a real context by applying them to solving problems.  It can be particularly meaningful to give the problems a context from another curricular area.   As well as regular opportunities to solve problems as part of their maths lessons, children often also respond well to the challenge of a ‘Problem of the Week’ which can be displayed in class for a set time.   The Nrich site is a good source of suitable problems, some of which are available as posters.  The Numeracy Strategy Logic Problems also have problems at a range of levels.

Missing Number questions

For calculation in particular, once a calculation process is learned (eg. column addition), presenting questions with missing digits can extend children’s thinking about the process they have been using.

Other useful websites

Mathpickle has some interesting videos and other activities.

Mathsticks has lots of useful resources.  There are lots of great activities which are free to download, and some premium resources if you can stretch to a membership.

7puzzle  posts a new puzzle every day.   The site also categorises the archived puzzles into Easy, Medium and Hard etc.

My Pinterest board has lots of other ideas for investigations, puzzles and challenges.

Picture This – The Importance of Representation in Teaching Maths

Teaching mathematics visually and actively

Last week, I talked about the great importance of building conceptual understanding in teaching maths and how fluency should build on this understanding rather than be based on teaching procedures without understanding.  One of the most powerful ways of doing this is by using concrete materials and representations and there are a wealth of these available to us.  When I was in school (admittedly rather a long time ago now), the only concrete materials I can remember are some shells and counters we used to help us do ‘sums’.  There was very little in the way of representation either – possibly shapes and fractions might be illustrated by diagrams, but otherwise little comes to mind.  Admittedly, I did manage to learn maths despite this, but even with the benefit of a maths degree, I found that some mathematical concepts became much clearer when I started teaching them and discovered representations that would support me in this.

This week, I have been reading a very helpful book by Tandi Clausen-MayTeaching Mathematics Visually and Actively introduces a whole range of concrete and visual material to support teaching maths in different areas.  Clausen-May argues that visual and practical approaches are vital in teaching children who may have struggled to learn maths in a more abstract way and the book is aimed mainly at teachers of these groups.  However, I believe that these approaches are actually beneficial for children of all abilities.  I want to be upfront and admit to being sent a copy of the book by the publishers for possible review, but I have no hesitation in recommending it.  The book is divided into chapters for several different areas of maths and for each introduces some key ways of using visual and practical approaches.  I am always keen to use this sort of approach in my own teaching, but I found here some useful reminders of approaches I was already familiar with, together with some that were new to me.  As well as key representations and materials for each area, there are also practical ideas about how to use these in the classroom and suggestions for further reading.  Information is also given about online tools and information, or in the case of concrete materials, guidance as to where these can be obtained.  As a bonus, a CD is included with the book, on which can be found useful printable materials and powerpoints.

In schools today, lots of visual and active approaches to teaching mathematical ideas can often be seen in Early Years setting and in KS1, but much less in KS2 and beyond.  Where representations and concrete materials are used it is often with less able children.  Children can then become reluctant to use these because they see them as ‘babyish’.  We need to use these approaches much more routinely, so that this sort of stigma is not be attached to them.  Admittedly, some of the concrete materials will need to be bought, but arguably this is a much better use of our budget than buying text books or photocopying worksheets.  Many can be fairly simply made or printed off and in many cases there are interactive versions available (although caution needs to be taken that these don’t completely replace the ‘hands on’ experience of manipulating objects which is so important in the early stages of learning a new concept).

I have started a pinterest board which includes some of my favourite concrete and representational resources and I hope to be adding to this regularly as I remember and come across others.

In with the New – The New Primary Maths Curriculum

New curriculum main aims

Like it or loathe it, the time is coming when it will be impossible to ignore the new curriculum (unless of course you teach in an academy).  Year 6 will have another year to continue with the old curriculum but other year groups need to start teaching from it from next September.

I am currently taking the NCETM Professional Development Lead Support course (which I would so far highly recommend) and had my first residential training at the end of last week.  In the main I found this somewhat reassuring.  I am sure that Michael Gove had a heavy influence in determining much of the content and in particular the emphasis on the aim of fluency with recalling facts and using procedures, and generally higher expectations by the end of the primary years.  Despite this, the three overarching aims are difficult to argue with, focusing on fluency, reasoning and problem solving.  The NCETM approach is to emphasise that fluency can only be achieved, and should only be achieved by building on a foundation of good conceptual understanding.  Their training and the training that we in turn will be passing onto schools explores the key role that representation and the use of concrete apparatus has in building up this conceptual understanding.  They are also keen to encourage teachers to make connections between different mathematical ideas in their teaching.

My worry is about how well this message will be conveyed to schools.  I have had two years of training as a Primary Maths Specialist, another year of work towards my masters in primary maths education, training as a Numbers Count teacher and have done lots of reading and research in addition to this.  I understand the importance of representation and of making connections.  I have seen the damage that can be done when children are moved too quickly to working with abstract mathematical procedures before they have been able to build up their conceptual understanding to support this.  I have experienced those wonderful ‘light bulb’ moments with KS2 children who have fallen well behind and lost all confidence in their mathematical ability, but given the chance to step back a little and revisit concepts of place value or calculation using concrete apparatus, suddenly see how it works.  Many of my colleagues however have not had these opportunities.  I’ve learned so much from the high quality professional development I’ve received in the last few years and could probably fill at least a year’s worth of weekly staff meetings by sharing all of this.

In most schools, professional development time is very limited.  Maths has to vie with many other subjects and priorities for staff meeting and Teacher day time.  Courses can be expensive and require teachers to be covered which adds to the expense, and budgets are limited.  In my opinion, however, it is good quality professional development which has the potential to make a huge difference to the quality of teaching and learning in schools.  If even half the time and money which is currently spent on inspecting, monitoring, evaluating, tracking data and gathering evidence was spent instead on good quality CPD, I believe the impact would be incredible.

The introduction of the new curriculum could be a great opportunity for schools to revisit their teaching approaches, to ensure teachers are clear about progression and route ways, to explore the range of concrete apparatus and representations which will support conceptual understanding, to explore the links between different mathematical ideas and to share approaches and ideas.  But this will require significant investment of time and money.  I suspect, however that many schools will not find the resources to do this and instead the new curriculum will be presented as a list of requirements with the result that many teachers will feel under pressure to move children on too quickly, which could lead to even less conceptual understanding.

In his (always helpful) blog yesterday, Derek Haylock also made the very important point that the format of the new assessments (currently being developed) will have a great influence on what is actually taught in schools.  Will these assess children’s understanding of underlying concepts, their ability to reason mathematically, their ability to apply their skills to problems?  Or will they focus on assessing the children’s ability to use mathematical procedures fluently?

For more information about the new curriculum and some resources which might prove helpful when introducing it, my New Curriculum Pinterest board may be helpful.

Measuring Up – Teaching Measures

Capacity measuring equipment Young children are often fascinated by comparing and ordering the sizes of things.  Perhaps it appeals to their innate sense of justice to determine whose apple is bigger and their equally well developed competitiveness to see who is taller.  Early Years teachers build on this by providing lots of opportunities to compare and order things and begin to use non-standard measures to quantify.  How many grapes balance an apple?  How many cubes high is the toy garage?  How many cups of tea can be poured from the teapot?  At this stage, it’s important too to give children lots of opportunity to experience and use the language associated with comparison: more, less, fewer, higher, lower, taller, shorter, heavier, lighter etc.  I’ve put together a few ideas for activities which support developing comparison language and you can download the document from the link at the bottom of this post.

As children move on in their understanding of measures, we move to using standard units of measure.  Children often struggle with estimating length, mass or capacity using standard units and they need lots of practical opportunities to measure familiar things using these units.  Wherever possible, opportunities should be found outside of the maths lesson for these activities, perhaps as part of topic work, for instance, to give them a meaningful context.  Children can weigh out ingredients for their chocolate snack in technology or find the capacity of a liquid before an evaporation experiment in science, or measure how far they can jump in P.E.  Another activity that can support children in becoming more familiar with units of measure is to give regular opportunities for estimating, and use these as opportunities to develop the skill of working out an unknown measure by comparing it with a known one.  Estimation 180 is a great source of visuals to support this (I blogged about this site here.)

Another common difficulty for children is remembering just how many grams in a kilogram, centimetres in a metre, millilitres in a litre etc.  One activity that can support this is by including counting in measures in daily counting activities, alongside counting in whole numbers, decimals and fractions etc.  So, for instance, when children are counting in hundreds, also count in steps of 100 grams.  I find a counting stick useful for this.  Develop skills progressively.  So for instance, you might count up first of all from 0 to 1 kg in steps of 100g, moving backwards and forwards along the counting stick.  As children become more familiar with this, use different starting points so that they become familiar with what happens after 1 kg.  At this point you have a choice of ways to count: 1100g, 1kg and 100g, 1.1 kg or 11/10 kg, and I’d suggest you use all of these ways alongside each other so that children start to also understand the equivalence of these.  Doing this will also help enormously when children begin to convert units of measure.

Children often find reading scales challenging too.  Again, there is no substitute for practical experience, and if you are able to have analogue scales, measuring jugs, tape measures etc. continually available in your classroom, this can be helpful in making it easier to pick up on opportunities for measurement that arise in other subject areas – a trip to hunt through the maths cupboard will probably make you less likely to do this!  The Measuring Scales ITP and Measuring Cylinder ITP can also both be helpful for focused opportunities to practise measuring scales skills.  Again, counting can also be useful in supporting reading scales.  Most scales are in intervals of 1, 2, 5, 10, 20, 50, 100, 200, 1000 etc.  so regular opportunities to practise counting in these steps will help children to use these skills when reading scales.

One of the main problems with children working with measures, I suspect, is that we move far too quickly to working with abstract measures or with diagrams rather than working practically.  I’ve been guilty of this myself – practical work involves finding equipment, it can be messy (particularly when working on capacity).  But practical work can also be lots of fun and really help children connect their learning to real life situations, so I’d encourage you to do as much as possible.

There are other ideas and resources for teaching measures on my Measures Pinterest board.

Resources for teaching language of comparison

Less is More – Supporting Less Mathematically Able Children

Ten frames

Last week’s #mathscpdchat focused on what we could do to support less mathematically able children.  It’s an important issue for teachers.  Poor numeracy skills put children at a definite disadvantage in life as outlined by National Numeracy here.

In my experience of teaching less able children, I have often found that one of the main problems is that they have been moved onto abstract methods and thinking too quickly, before they have really got a strong sense of number and good mental images to support their understanding.  Pressure to prepare children for assessments contributes to this, but we need to be aware that if we move children on too quickly, we are often trying to build understanding on very shaky foundations and sooner or later the cracks will show.

In last Tuesday’s discussion, we agreed that building up basic number sense was essential.  Ideally, this starts to happen in Early Years Settings and KS1 with lots of use of concrete apparatus and representation, but in KS2 and beyond, the use of manipulatives and images remains an important tool in building up understanding.  The CRA approach to building understanding is a good one to bear in mind.  We start with Concrete apparatus, move to Representation when children are more confident and finally to Abstract when children have a firm grasp of what is happening, linking each step to the previous one.

I’ve found ten frames and Numicon particularly useful for helping children to build their number sense, but Cuisenaire, multilink and Base ten equipment can all be helpful too.  Another way of building this is by regular use of dot talks in the lower years of primary and number talks at higher levels.  In dot talks, children are presented with a pattern of dots and asked to work on their own to calculate how many dots there are in all.  Then the class or group discuss the different ways they worked this out.  This helps children to see different ways of breaking up numbers.  Number talks work similarly.  Children are given a calculation and initially work on their own to solve it.  Then the class discusses the different approaches.  Again this helps children see that there can be multiple approaches to the same problem and that no one way is the ‘right’ way.  They may also start to see connections between the different approaches.

@School-LN reminded us of the importance of making connections, and suggested an interesting way of helping children to do this.  Children are given sets of numbers, shapes or bar charts, for instance, and asked to sort them into groups and then explain their choices.  For less able children, maths can seem to be a lot of disconnected facts and procedures that they have to learn, but if we can help them to make connections, they start to realise that there is much less to learn than they feared.  @PGCE_Maths suggested the report ‘Deep Learning in Mathematics’ which is well worth reading and argues the case for focusing on connections and relationships in maths rather than technical procedures.

@Janettww had some experience of using 3 act maths lessons, where students devise their own questions before attempting the maths and has found it very motivating for students at all levels of ability.  This seems to be something that could really promote mathematical thinking.

@bm332 also raised the important issue of classroom climate.  Many students really lack confidence and it’s important that they feel able to speak up when they don’t know or don’t understand something;  @Maths4ukplc also pointed out that mistakes need to be valued as learning opportunities.

So altogether, lots of food for thought and lots of good ideas.  The complete record of the discussion can be found on the NCETM site here and I’ve also put together a pinterest board which includes some of the resources mentioned together with some other ideas.

Take it Away – Subtraction

Number line

At about this stage of the term, many teachers will be teaching calculation.  Look at most schemes of work or medium term plans and you will probably find roughly equal amounts of time given to covering addition and subtraction.  Yet, almost any diagnostic assessment will tell you that most children are far more secure in understanding addition than they are with subtraction.  Perhaps we need to make sure we give a little (or maybe even a lot) more weighting to teaching subtraction.

So why does subtraction cause so many problems?  Well let’s think about some of the ideas we use when learning about subtraction in school.

  • The ‘taking away’ idea – probably the first that children come across.  One group of objects is taken away from a larger group and typically we count what’s left.
  • The ‘difference’ or ‘counting up’ idea – we count up from the smaller number to the greater and find the difference between them
  • The ‘counting back’ idea – we count back from the bigger number by the number of steps in the smaller number
  • The ‘inverse of addition’ idea – we work out what must be added to the smaller number to make the greater number

No wonder our children get confused!  Our teaching needs to help them make connections between all these ideas and will need to involve lots of practical work and the use of models and images, particularly number lines.

The new curriculum puts much more emphasis on using formal column methods for calculation and on building fluency with these.  If these methods are to serve our children well, it’s vital that well before we move onto them we have laid the foundations by building secure conceptual understanding.

This will start in Early Years and KS1 classroom with lots of practical work, wherever possible using real life situations which connect with the children’s experience of life.  This is also the stage where it’s important to start building up children’s mathematical vocabulary by lots of careful modelling and opportunity for discussion.  Particularly important at this stage is the language of comparison: greater than, less than, more than, fewer than etc.  It will also help enormously if children start to get a ‘feel’ for numbers and the way they can be split apart in different ways.  Later on, regrouping is going to be needed and children will find this much easier if they are already comfortable with splitting numbers up in multiple ways.  My blogs on building number sense and learning number bonds give some ideas which might be useful.  After lots of practical experience, children can be taught to record their work using number sentences, but only once they have clear mental pictures to accompany these.

Counting is another important skill that lays the foundations for subtraction, particularly counting backwards and counting over tens and hundreds boundaries.

Once children are becoming confident with manipulating numbers, number lines may be introduced.  It’s important however that children are able to connect the counting that they do along a number line with the practical work they have done.  It is not obvious initially to many children that, for instance, 12 – 8 can be represented by counting up from 8 to 12 along a number line.  One way of visualising this is to scribble out the portion of the number line up to 8 (representing the part taken away) as above.

At first, children may use ready-made number lines but as they grow more confident, they will be able to draw their own number lines to suit each new calculation.  As understanding progresses, counting on along the number line can be used for increasingly large numbers and children will count on using larger jumps, usually to the next tens or hundreds number and then counting on in tens or hundreds.  This program can be helpful in illustrating this.  As the use of the number line becomes increasingly sophisticated, it’s important to keep making connections with other representations of subtraction.  How could you represent the calculation with base ten equipment, for instance?

Eventually children will be ready to move onto column methods and at this stage, it’s vital that we don’t just teach them a procedure.  We need to show them how it works by using models and images alongside the formal calculation.  This program shows how the expanded method works alongside the more formal compact method.  I would suggest also using base ten equipment to make what is happening even more clear.

For more calculation ideas, my pinterest calculation board might be useful.