A major barrier for many Functional Skills maths learners, irrespective of whether English is their first language or not, is literacy. The new maths Functional Skills Specification requires more, of both learners and teachers, in terms of reading, understanding and explanation, further disadvantaging learners with literacy barriers in test outcomes.
At EMBS and Activate Learning we wanted to assess whether, for Entry Level maths learners, applying a methodology of systematic peer feedback in response to written explanations, would improve student outcomes. The methodology we chose was based on the work of Dr Malcolm Swan for the DfE Standards Unit and Stanford Professor Jo Boaler, which showed that engaging learners and getting them to think and talk about mathematical ideas improved confidence and results.
Learners with ESOL needs and low literacy levels struggle with literacy in maths Functional Skills; with teachers feeling ill- equipped to help
Director, Activate Learning
As a project team we shared tasks and responsibilities equally and focused on Entry 3 and Entry 2 maths. Within the Entry Levels, learners are expected to write clear and accurate text to explain their answers. Alongside the need to use mathematical notations such as diagrams, graphs and symbols, this expectation is a considerable barrier to ESOL learners and those learners with weak literacy skills. This is further compounded by the fact that Functional Skills maths teachers tend not to be experts in developing literacy skills amongst their learners
We therefore engaged an external trainer to work with our Functional Skills maths teachers. The training was specifically centred on developing techniques which provided opportunities for learners to discuss, practice, critique and try alternative methods to solving the problem presented. These methods aimed to stimulate increased oral debate and explanations that could then be translated into written answers to test questions. Teachers were also provided with an outline lesson plan to trial in their classrooms and agreed to supportive session observations.
We established baseline attitudes and recorded the development of teachers and learners through pre and post intervention questionnaires and focus groups. Targeting one element of the new specifications, handling information and data, we identified pre-intervention and post-intervention learner skills by analysing answers to an exemplar test paper.
Our main success was that both cohorts (consisting of 22 learners) following the intervention over a period of 8-12 weeks improved their baseline scores by 12 – 14%, with two E3 learners making a significant improvement of 38% and 50%. We also saw an increase in the time learners spent answering questions, and when connected to the improvement in the test scores, we realised that they were spending longer reading and breaking down the question as they had been taught, rather than previously rushing and guessing inaccurately.
Our session observations revealed learners actively asking how to spell mathematical terms, such as square and hexagon. Some learners had found the confidence to challenge each other, pointing out errors.
Open dialogue and questioning was however more apparent within our ESOL cohort, as they were more practiced and confident in speaking to others. Indeed, discussion, questioning and voicing opinions is a feature of ESOL pedagogy. In contrast, our study programme learners were hesitant and reluctant to reason orally, not trusting the response of their peers and preferring to refer back to the teacher. The Functional Skills teachers themselves valued the interventions and being able to undertake their own direct action research in preparation for the reforms. Recently, so much focus has been on GCSE and retakes, it was therefore good to turn the spotlight on Functional Skills and the Functional Skills teaching staff. The training and freedom to implement new ideas also made our teachers realise how much more they could do within their teaching sessions
One of the benefits was listening to the rich conversations of learners providing insights into understanding and revealing misconceptions.
Development & Quality Manager, EMBS
Tackling language and literacy barriers to maths achievement is a long standing issue at all levels and although our intervention showed positive results, it was only within one topic area and over a relatively short time period. Additionally, learners had already completed at least 6 months of their maths course. Therefore, our results are not conclusive, however using collaborative peer work does seem to be a step in the right direction. Any intervention which gets learners thinking, questioning and discussing has to be beneficial, even if a lot of work still needs to be done to improve confidence, fluency and literacy levels in general. Indeed, when asked, the majority of our learners still felt that they were not good at maths, even in spite of their positive outcomes.
We will definitely continue and apply collaborative working teaching techniques to other maths topics such as Number and Measure and Shape and Space and will continue to encourage our teachers to work in action learning sets, where they can gain confidence, develop their skills and embed new ideas. This sort of approach takes time for both the teacher to master and the learner to accept and change their attitudes towards maths, attitudes that have developed over many years. Building specific language work into maths Functional Skills sessions is however a way forward.
For further information on anything you have read here or if you would be interested in hearing about taking part in future project opportunities please contact [email protected].