Picture the scene: making sense of Functional Maths

by Eve Sheppard, a Maths + ESOL Advanced Practitioner

How can I make maths and grammar come alive for my learners?  How can I help them really understand what they read, especially instructions?  As a teacher of ESOL and maths these are questions I ask myself on a weekly basis. Recently I tried something that shows real promise for answering both of them.

A bit of background: I’ve been teaching Entry Level Functional Maths to ESOL students for over 10 years now, and have built up a fairly reliable toolkit of resources and approaches. However, one thing that my students always struggle with is the ‘functional’ aspect of the maths exams. A typical question might begin ‘A man goes to a bookshop. He is looking for a cheap paperback’ before posing questions about the price of books and whether this nameless man can afford them. Time and again, the errors my learners make demonstrate that they haven’t understood (or possibly even read?) the scenario the exam presents to them. 

As exams approach I can generally be found earnestly imploring my students: ‘The exam will tell you a story. Read carefully and try to picture the situation’. For some reason, it never occurred to me to literally make a picture. Enter Rossie Stone founder of Dekko Comics, who delivered a fantastic session at the NATECLA North West Autumn conference.  Rossie told an engaging story about his struggles with dyslexia at school, and how reimagining his revision notes as cartoons had revolutionised his approach to learning and led to previously unimagined success in his GCSE exams. As Rossie demonstrated how to turn maths and grammar concepts into visual stories, I admired his ability to conjure up a comic-strip with just a few strokes of his virtual pen. In a matter of minutes he turned the question ‘what is a verb?’ into a little slice of slapstick comedy.  It was a reminder of the power of images and narrative to engage learning and aid memory. I often use images in maths but generally as a way of representing numbers and concepts, not to tell stories. As I listened to Rossie’s talk, I realised that this could be exactly what I have been looking for to help my learners.

Just one little problem – unlike the talented Rossie, my artistic abilities are limited to the most basic of stick men and are a regular cause of hilarity to my learners. Valiantly, I decided to press on and give it a try. I opened up Jamboard and drew a crude picture of a woman £10 short of being able to buy some shiny new trainers. I presented it to my learners as a starter activity, and asked them to come up with some sentences to describe what was happening. When I asked them to share their ideas, one girl responded apologetically: “I’ve written it like a story miss – is that OK?”. I could have hugged her. For years I have been asking students to think about functional maths as a story, and for once I’ve actually witnessed it happen!  She told the story perfectly, another learner supplied some key vocabulary and together they constructed and answered their own Functional Maths problem. It was a small breakthrough in what has been a very difficult term, but for me it’s little moments like this that make teaching such an endlessly engaging career.

Who knows what the impact will be in the long-term, but a second comic strip introducing multiplication was equally successful so I am determined that comics are going to become a regular feature of my ESOL and maths classes. I’m even starting to overturn my deeply held conviction that I don’t like drawing; sketching the pictures has actually felt like a bit of creative down-time in a hectic week. I’m really enjoying bringing art into maths and looking forward to asking my students to draw their own pictures next. Once again I’m reminded that taking a few steps out of my comfort zone is often the path to new and exciting things.

a scan of a typical learner error

A typical learner error. She understands numbers but not the context. ESOL students often see ‘How much more’ and assume that ‘more’ means addition.

A scan of a typical narrative exam question

The type of question my learners struggle with. ‘Give a reason’ requires them to engage with a context and provide a text answer based on the ‘story’ of the exam paper.

A scan of a learners narrative explanation of Eve's drawing showing comprehension

It can be a struggle to define words like ‘enough’ clearly and memorably for ESOL learners. Here the word emerged naturally from our conversation about the picture.

a (sad) stick person holding £20 looking at a pair of shoes that have a £30 price tag

Still not the world’s greatest artist – there was quite a debate over the gender of my protagonist!