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21 December 2023

Three ways to embed numeracy in your school

Dr Jane Kay is a numeracy specialist. She is a former maths teacher and head of department who has delivered in schools and the further and higher education sector. Here, she presents three main strands of practice to improve numeracy in classrooms.

“To fail to plan is to plan to fail”. I learned this in my teacher training year and it has stuck with me for the last nineteen years or more. I love planning - even the stationary required is soothing in its nature. Who doesn’t love that fresh teacher planner every September?

Planning in maths and numeracy can give us a sense of definitiveness when something is down on paper in front of us; we feel prepared. This is essential because the structure of numeracy and maths as subjects require a hierarchy and sequential teaching order, not just through a term or year or even a whole key stage, but through a whole school approach.

1) Interrogate planning across the school curriculum to identify links with numeracy

For numeracy we can use planning to really support improvement. There are so many different types of planning that we undertake, lesson planning, curriculum planning, long term planning, medium term, schemes of work, units, modules, the list is a long one. If we interrogate that planning, that interrogation can lead to an identification of numerical skills or opportunities across the curriculum. We can create a cross curricular map, identifying opportunities to strengthen or reinforce numeracy skills where they naturally appear in other classes. We can produce a genuinely interlinked curriculum, allowing learners to make more sense of the world around them.

A useful parallel to draw upon is literacy. 

Literacy has become a subject with a whole school approach. The fundamental nature of the subject literacy is in tandem with the nature of numeracy. For example: In literacy, the more letters and syllables a word has, the more difficult it can be to spell and pronounce (I am specifically thinking of a famous Welsh railway station right now). The concept of ‘more’ equalling ‘more difficult’ is the same in numeracy. The more digits there are in a calculation, the more difficult it will be to complete accurately, creating a parallel with literacy. A whole school approach to literacy can be mirrored by a whole school approach to numeracy, with the two subjects sometimes clearly represented as inter-connected or parallel with a whole school ‘literacy and numeracy approach’.

2) Work on a mastery approach to teaching numeracy in the classroom

Mastery of skills has gained momentum quite recently, with numeracy being at the forefront of this development. Mastery asks us to teach the concrete, then the pictorial and then move on to the abstract. Use objects, then pictures and finally add in the digits and symbols. Using the concrete means we start with real objects, whether that’s counters or Cuisenaire rods (maths teachers are familiar with these) it can also be any other object that is concrete in nature.

For example: If we want to work out the volume of a cuboid, rather than starting with a formula or method and then substituting numbers and calculating to find the answer, we can start with a real cuboid. A cereal box. 

  • We can measure it.
  • We can pose the problem of working out how much cereal will fit in the box.
  • Show a picture of the box with the measurements on.
  • Use the calculation to identify the volume.
  • Students can work out the volume of another cuboid picture without using the box.
  • From that they can work out the volume without a diagram and just have a description with numbers.
  • We can go back to the box and pose the question of why the formula for volume works.

There are lots of other things that improve numerical learning but an expansion of both the planning and the mastery above would be the context in which we learn numeracy or the context that we attach to it.

3) Facilitate the use of real contexts where possible in numeracy teaching

The aspect of the mastery technique starting with a cereal box gives more depth to learning, providing real life context with the type of box. Contexts can be difficult in the primary phase due to the very limited prior experiences of the learners, but realistic contexts are still there to be accessed.

Learners can recognise different foodstuffs in terms of the packaging so the box example above can be extended, the boxes can be opened out and cut to examine and compare 2D and 3D shapes. In early years foundation stage, larger and smaller can be compared in the same way. Less and more lends itself to the same box context, and counters can become coins/toy coins over time, bringing in an entirely different context. Some early key stage one learners have a clear understanding of coins, offering a preference for a pound coin over a penny, although their reasoning may not be entirely numerical in the first instance.

Further reading 

I recommend taking a look at the NCETM (National Centre of Excellence for Teaching Mathematics) website for guidance and support materials.

NPQ in Leading Primary Maths

The NIoT’s NPQ in Leading Primary Maths is designed to equip teachers and school leaders with the knowledge, skills, experience and network to know how to lead Maths in a primary phase or whole-school. For more information, click here.

Dr Jane Kay is a numeracy specialist with extensive experience as a former maths teacher and head of department. Jane is now an Initial Teacher Education Tutor with the NIoT based in the North West.
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