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#### Children’s wellbeing matters most

School matters. Learning matters. But what matters most is the emotional wellbeing of all our children.

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by Huntington Research School

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*This is the second in a series of blogs focusing on the content of the Education Endowment Foundation’s recently published ‘Improving Mathematics in the Early Years and Key Stage 1’ Guidance report. Each blog comes with an accompanying ‘parent handout’ that you may find useful to use with your families to help them support early mathematical development at home.*

As a parent of 3 sporty children, as well as taking many school matches, I have had the dubious pleasure of standing through many many under 7 football matches. On a very regular basis at these matches there are some lovely, helpful parents and sometimes coaches and managers that are supporting the players by giving them gentle guidance (not the stereotype who are screaming at their kid that they are not trying hard enough!).

This includes offering advice such as ‘mark up’ and ‘play the ball up the line’. Surprisingly to these parents the players nearly always fail to take this advice. Why? Well I would bet that barely any of the children actually have a clue what either of those statements mean. Of course there may be many other reasons why the players do not act on the advice given too but if the children don’t actually understand what they are being asked to do there no hope they are going to be able to carry out the instruction.

So what is the message here that could be transferred to our teaching of maths to 3 – 7 year olds?

*Vocabulary is crucially important to maths development. Often the barrier, or one of the barriers, to children’s mathematical learning is not only, or not at all, their mathematical understanding. It is the fact that they don’t understand what is being asked or the link between what is being shown to them and the words they are hearing.*

*We know that children with good early language skills will be more likely to succeed in maths later in life. ‘Studies are now beginning to demonstrate that, alongside executive functions, language skills have a major influence on children’s success with arithmetic.***(Gilmore, Gobel and Inglis, 2018)**

For example, children may well understand mathematical concepts but may not be able to put these in words or understand what is being asked of them. *‘Young children can already represent numerosities approximately before they can count.’ ***(Gilmore, Gobel and Inglis, 2018)**

I recently had the pleasure of getting to see two maths lessons in my local secondary school, a set 1 and set 4 maths lesson, which were the introductory lesson to fractions in Year 7.

In these excellent lessons we had the privilege of observing the Y7 teachers beginning the process of teaching the pupils fractions in a secondary setting by asking the pupils to define what a fraction is. In set 4 not one child could give a definition of a fraction; in set 1 a couple of pupils could define what a fraction is. This is despite the fact nearly every pupil could come up with a list of associated ideas: ‘you can add them’ and of course ‘you can make them with a pizza’.

This was an eye-opener for all involved – especially the teachers of the Year 6 children (of whom I was one) as I presumed that they knew this.**What does this mean for Early Maths?**

1. Vocabulary must be repeated a considerable number of times in context before it is retained and understood. *It wasn’t until after 24 repetitions that the majority of children (80%) successfully remembered the new word* – ‘The Magic of Words’, Neuman and Wright

2. Children, like the rest of us, forget things if it is not revisited. We cannot presume that as pupils were told what a fraction actually is in Year One that they will remember this in Year Two, let alone in Year Seven. There are many places you can read more about this (for example Didau, 2013)

3. There is a difference between knowing a word and understanding a word. For example ‘Children learn the count sequence by rote before understanding the numerical meaning of number words and Arabic numerals’ (Fuson, 1998).

4. There is a difference between expressive and receptive vocabulary. Children may be able to understand a word when it is put in context in a sentence to them but that is not the same as being able to freely use it.

5. Words can mean different things in a precise mathematical way to every day speech. A good example of this used would be ‘sum’. Broadly this can mean any sort of, usually written, calculation. In mathematics it means addition. The Improving Mathematics in Key Stages Two and Three Guidance Report highlights an example as being that pupils often regard the equals sign as an instruction to calculate rather than an indication of an equivalence (EEF, 2018).

6. It might not be the ‘mathematical language’ that is an issue for the child understanding the mathematical question. It may be a different word in the sentence that is causing a problem.

7. On a regular basis teachers and other adults in a child’s life may use different vocabulary to explain the same thing which causes difficulty for a child to realise they are describing the same concept in a different way.

Given the significance of the challenge there is no one thing that will rectify all these issues. However, as a starting place here are some considerations for practitioners in schools and settings:

- Model the use of language and reinforce this in our conversations, guided tasks and in response to children’s leads

- Curriculum planning: be clear on what we are hoping that pupils will be able to articulate by the time they leave a year group

- Explicitly teach vocabulary and ask children to try and draw links between different concepts

- Ask children to use a different word to describe what they are describing in order to show greater understanding

- Ask open ended questions that provide the child with a chance to explain their mathematical thinking

- Ensure a coherent policy between classes in school and between school, settings and home

**Mari Palmer is the head of a small rural primary and currently class teacher in Y5/6, although most of her teaching experience is in R- Y2, particularly in mixed-age classes. Mari is also Director of North Yorkshire Coast Research School.Follow on Twitter @NYCResearchSch**

EEF (2018) Improving Mathematics in Key Stages Two and Three

Didau, D (2013) https://learningspy.co.uk/featured/deliberately-difficult-focussing-on-learning-rather-than-progress‑2/

Fuson, K. C. (1998) Children’s Counting and Concepts of Number. New York: Springer Verlag

Gilmore, C., Gobel, S.M., and Inglis, M. (2018) An Introduction to Mathematical Cognition Oxon: Routledge

Lee, C (2006) Language for Learning Mathematics: Assessment for Learning in Practice New York: Oxford University Press

Neuman, S and Wright, T (2014) American Educator, Vol. 38, No. 2, American Federation of Teachers

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