I am now half way through the school year. This means my pupils are also half way through the school year and they have all just sat their third summative assessment; I have been marking a lot of papers!
The first thing that strikes you when you begin to mark a pile of papers is how many silly mistakes can be made. On closer inspection, it seems many an error is made through misinterpretation of the question. I have on occasions wondered whether pupils even read the question at all!
The sad truth is some of them probably don’t. I see two possible reasons for this – either the pupils are under the impression that because this is a mathematics paper they just need to look at the numbers, or perhaps they are struggling to pick out the key vocabulary and missing what the question is actually asking.
Sadly, it is often a combination of both. I have seen pupils become confused at the difference between calculating 10 per cent “off” the original price and 10 per cent “of” the original price.
I have also seen pupils interpret bar charts completely inaccurately purely because they did not (or could not) read the labels on the axes.
This has led me to reflect carefully on my promotion of literacy across the curriculum. As teachers, we know literacy is important in all subjects. I have enthusiastically tried to incorporate all manner of key word games and extended writing tasks into my lessons.
At first, the main barrier seemed to be the pupils’ confusion about why on earth they would be required to write sentences in a mathematics lesson. My first attempt at setting an extended writing task with year 10 (to write a letter explaining a methodology for factorising a quadratic expression), was met with sighs, groans and complaints that “this is not English, Miss!”.
However, I decided to smile through it, explaining calmly that the ability to thoroughly explain a method would develop deeper understanding. My perseverance has paid off; pupils have started to become accustomed to the fact that literacy is an important part of understanding mathematical concepts. They have even started to enjoy literacy tasks.
A particular favourite with 6th form has been playing “key word taboo”; pupils have to describe the key word on the piece of paper I have given them to the rest of the class without saying certain buzz words. This stretches them to think through more sophisticated ways of articulating the concept.
Elsewhere, I have very much enjoyed reading letters from my key stage 3 pupils after, for homework, they were required to research a mathematical concept, apply it to something in real life and explain to me why they found it interesting.
Accompanying this has been a push to develop oracy. This is particularly important for my lower sets, who find it a challenge to express themselves verbally. By asking them to show their work to the class and explain their methods, I hope I am helping them to develop their verbal communication skills as well as their self-confidence and presentation skills.
Despite all of the above, it seems some pupils need a little extra support with interpreting written exam questions. I can completely sympathise with this, as some of the questions seem completely detached from the real world and require rather a lot of “unpicking”. Unable to change the examinations, it seems I will have to develop a new focus on teaching “exam question interpretation skills”.
Our NQT diarist this year writes anonymously and is a teacher of maths from a south London secondary.