@SPorterEdu

Teaching, Learning & Research

Posts tagged ‘Writing’

Writing in Mathematics as opposed to Literacy in Mathematics, is my focus here. This post is not a rant but instead a reflection on my expectations of students work.  Recently, I was observed with a particularly able Mathematics class and as a result, an area that I need to work on is feedback and bookwork; ensuring that my students writing is good or better! My aim is to share my thoughts and search out ways of improving writing in my lessons as well as the lessons of those teachers who I support in my home school and in the wider setting of our learning federation. “You write like a toddler!” Sounds like a comment that a student would teasingly say to a fellow student, right?  Wrong!  These were the actual words that fell from a colleagues mouth (or should I say, crashed into the room) and still reverberate in my ears today!  This response was given after a year 11 student bravely went up to the board to label a set of axes.  My first thought was this, ‘give the kid a break!’ and the second was ‘does it really matter as we can all read it?’.  I know that I would not have made this statement, even if that was what I was thinking but does this mean that I have low standards? Has my level of tolerance changed since working with children? Are my expectations of writing lower because I teach Maths and not English? I’m going to consider this and and break down my thoughts for you. Research – Students thoughts on writing Some students struggle to write and I’ve witnessed pages in Maths lessons where the writing is oversized or ridiculously small.  “What is the research evidence on writing?” by the Department for Education is a good read and looks at whole school approaches, intervention and gender differences too.  The following table is from this report. DfE Research Report Nov 2012 The fourth item was of particular interest to me as a teacher of Mathematics “A pupil who writes well gets better marks than someone that doesn’t“.  I tell students that the examiners don’t know them and that they need to ensure that their writing is clear but they don’t all listen.  I’m starting to think that they do listen and they just can’t help themselves; this is their best writing.  But should I or an examiner be marking them down for the way that they form their ‘a’ or their ‘9’?  I hate to say it but it is going to happen if the work is not legible. Do you really hold your pen like that? I’ve seen students holding their pens as though they were in the midst of hollowing out a pumpkin or stirring a bowl of soup but they are still able to write legibly. So does it really matter how you hold your writing implement? Having thought about it over the past few days, I’d say yes.   I say it matters because this may lead to problems and injuries with these students hands, arms (and posture) and could lead to students not being able to sit through the marathon exams (1 hour and 30 minutes or more, of diehard writing).  Poor writing technique has got to be similar to the effects of having poor posture, which most of us correct in students “don’t slouch”, “try to sit up straight”, “…don’t bend like that or you will hurt your back!”.  I can’t remember saying “don’t grip your pen so tightly!”, or “make sure you thumb is lined up with you forearm”, to a student.  Should I, as a teacher of Mathematics be looking out for these things or even making students aware by mentioning this to them?  To be honest I don’t know.  If you are interested,  RJBlain provides photographs and details of what you should look out for.

Tools to help children write well.

Tools to help improve writing.

I remember having handwriting lessons when I was at junior school but nothing at secondary.  I imagine it’s the same now (primary teachers please correct me if I’m wrong), where students are taught how to hold a pen in KS2 but by KS3 if they have not mastered it, not much time (if any) is allocated to this skill.  If you have students (or your own child) that struggle to hold a pen/pencil comfortably and you don’t know how to help, visit Draw Your World.  They have useful information on what to do as well as tools to help improve writing. Modelling When I first started teaching, one of the things that really let me down was my board work; it was a mess!  Whatever, I was thinking and deemed important for students to get into their books, I would add to the board …”don’t forget to put this down too”.  I remember clearly when things changed. My university mentor (an amazing lady and educationalistLaurinda Brown) had visited me at one of my placements to observe a lesson.  We were reviewing the lesson and she asked me to get a few books. I didn’t see where she was going with this until I looked at the books and then looked up at the board…you guessed it. The students had copied the board to their books and it was not good.  Consequently, I regularly step back from the board to ensure my work looks tidy and on occasion will sketch out what I intend to write if I’m using two boards (whiteboard and projected images). By ensuring that my board work looks good, I expect my students to follow my lead, but my recent observation flagged this.  How can I get my students to write better and make their work more presentable?  Should I really push for all students to have the same style of writing?  Some primary schools insist on students taking one square per digit / letter in their Maths books.

Each digit and letter needs to be two squares high please, anything else is unacceptable…I will be checking and measuring this with a ruler!

I will continue to request and expect a high standard of layout and presentation from my students but I may have to steal/photocopy a few pages of work to display as exemplars.  Hopefully this will prompt other students to get their work to a similar high quality. So to conclude… Practice makes perfect; students need to write daily.   I will make writing an integral part of my lessons and persevere when the class moans and groans “…but Miss, this is a Maths lesson NOT an English lesson!”.  I need to practice (or should that be practise with an s?) my writing on paper and guarantee that when I give any written feedback in my students book, it is legible, even when I am tired.

Wish me luck in my next observation; I expect my students books to be…

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This post was inspired by “What’s the best way to teach vocabulary?” written by @Mr_Bunker_Edu.  I’m procrastinating whilst marking books and this post made me think about how I introduce key words to my students in Mathematics.  For the purpose of reflection, I’m just going to think out loud on this one, so please excuse my, not so perfect writing style.

The more words my students can read and understand, the more complex and challenging texts they can access

The above quote is taken directly from the aforementioned post and I feel it applies across the board, albeit Maths, English, Science, PE or any subject.  Some folks would question the need for students to understand complex words in Maths because Maths is all about numbers right?! Wrong; we use words too!

Artwork by Hugh MacLeod (Gaping Void) and Bob Marshall - www.rafamontoya.com

Artwork by Hugh MacLeod (Gaping Void) and Bob Marshall – http://www.rafamontoya.com

Reading

In every Maths lesson I get students to read their answers to the class, read questions / statements to each other and expand on what the previous person has said – one of my favourite things to do!  This helps to remind me of a students ability to read whilst allowing me to gauge the level of differentiated task/activity that a particular student should be working on.  It also provides an opportunity for students to lose their inhibitions in class and gain the support of their peers.  Generally speaking, students don’t laugh at their peers if they can not pronounce a new word, they will actually say it for them, help them out.  Reading together, part of a question at a time, can really focus learning too.

If we think about this in the context of an exam question, the problem becomes apparent.  If a student is able to read and understand the examination question, they will know what the examiner is asking and they have a good chance of actually answering the question; as opposed to laying out a short waffling sentence and a string of numbers in the hope that some combination will be correct.  This may seem like common sense as many students can read the examination questions but unfortunately, they hit a hurdle when it comes to understanding and interpreting the questions.

The same is true of any classroom textbook.  Some books are more suited to students with a higher reading age and others have much less text, more pictures/diagrams and simple questions.  Key words tend to be highlighted, in bold and usually in a box somewhere on the page (not all Maths textbooks have a glossary).

If students struggle to read, then they have very little hope of interpreting the question, knowing what the examiner is asking them to do.  So, with my teacher of Mathematics hat on, how can I help my students to understand the question?  How can I help them to interpret this problem?  They need to understand what words mean.  And, they really need to understand that some words sound the same but have a slightly different spelling (e.g Compliment and Complement)

Key Words 

Make a high scoring Maths word

Make a high scoring Maths word (thanks @tombrush1982)

In Mathematics lessons at our school, key words are introduced with the learning objectives and returned to throughout the lesson.

I have had conversations with staff at different schools, who think that this form of mild immersion leads to students knowing and understanding new key words but this is superficial.  Having the words displayed on the board and around the classroom is excellent, but can tend to become a form of wallpaper; the students see the words but they do not think about the meaning of the words.  Displaying key words is useful in the short term, but can be useless in the long term unless they are reinforced and regularly revisited

I have found that the following works well for me and my current classes;

  • Returning to key words in later lessons (useful when “Cold Calling” – see Teach Like a Champion Technique 22 – Doug Lemov)
  • Using the words in mini spelling tests
  • Creating word-searches (occasionally)
  • Having a Q&A session or plenary to check understanding
  • Encouraging students to use these key words when making their own questions, as part of assessments.

The above, can lead to a greater depth of understanding, both in terms of the key word and in terms of subject knowledge.  These methods may not necessarily work for all teachers nor for all classes.  However, these methods can work for students who have weak literacy skills.

(see “The essential guide to lesson planning” by Dr Leila Walker for further hints and tips)

Problem Solving

This is the part of Mathematics that you either love or hate, can do or are simply scared of.  If (you or) your students’ numeracy skills, ability to manipulate numbers / equations, level of reading and understanding is excellent, then you are in a position to tackle some of the most challenging problems (www.Brilliant.org).  Take a look at this problem from the UK Intermediate Maths Challenge 2013 which is aimed at students in years 9 to 11:

Solution can be found at www.ukmt.org.uk

 

Irrespective of the Mathematics involved, you will notice that if you do not understand or know the words congruent, trapezium, parallel, diagonal or ratio, you are already experiencing problems.  Even if you are able to ‘do the Maths’ (simplify a ratio or express the shaded section as a fraction), with a limited vocabulary, you will struggle.  Can you see what I mean?

Soooo, problem solving, the higher level work in Mathematics, the Gold or Platinum level of worksheets, is only really accessible to students whose reading and comprehension is very good.  Is that really right?  I can’t say with 100% certainty that this is true but I have noticed that the students I have taught who struggle with problem solving nearly always need the problem broken down.  This is where those long weekends come in handy…ah yes, the time we have to devise a set of worksheets with more clues for some and less clues for others; differentiation!  (This is another discussion that will simply run and run…)

In conclusion

All teachers need to find ways to support each other when helping students to be the best that they can be.  In English or History for example, a student could be asked to “…draw a graph showing the mood or intensity of the story as it proceeds” (pg 97 Dr L Walker) to incorporate numeracy.

In PE a student may be asked to complete written work using connectives and sentence openers to guide them;

Helping learners with weak literacy in PE

Improving literacy in PE

With all of this in mind, I’m thinking about the ways in which I can support my colleagues in the English department in broadening the vocabulary of our students.  For starters, I need to increase my vocabulary and understanding of words, as well as give the students the opportunity to do more writing in Mathematics.  Next week I’ll get students to be creative and write a short story using key words in an attempt to help them remember and understand.  I think I’ll even get them to write numbers as words instead of digits, because they need to (and it often comes up in exams!)

It’s one thing to have a little song to help students remember a formula but we, as teachers need to consider looking at the etymology of words every now and then.  We should also try to find a few more interesting stories to keep them hooked, help them understand  and ultimately expand their vocabulary.

If you have any quirky (or not so quirky) ways of introducing and helping students understand key words in your lessons, please share.  I’m always keen to try something new.

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