Sunday, 24 November 2019

What have the Maths Department ever done for English?

This week, I had the pleasure of covering a Maths lesson period 5 on Friday.

With my pile of mocking marking under my arm, I arrived to find the cover work on the desk. Hoping for an hour’s worth of marking, I instructed students to complete the work from the sheets provided. Then, I took it upon myself to have a go at the task. I was hooked. As a result of this, I nabbed a visualiser from another classroom and started to teach the lesson on increasing and decreasing numbers with percentages.  Not one single mock question was marked. Instead, I challenged the class to beat me in answering the questions and used the visualiser to feedback the answers. 

I don’t deny it, but I am envious of Maths. They had one sheet and it covered a whole lesson and it contained numerous examples of practice and numerous chances to spot errors and clarify misunderstandings. I am slightly envious of how easy and systematic it was. I am a big, big, big fan of systems and having an approach that is used consistently in subjects. If you have some aspects of English lessons systematic, it gives you a whole big space of room in lessons to be creativity and unsystematic. Have a system for spellings, vocabulary, knowledge learning and you can have a whole lesson spent being creative with ideas or stories.

Personally, I think being systematic in English lessons is like swear word. Any desire to be systematic is beaten down with a poet’s silk cravat or an author’s frilly bonnet. It usually takes about four seconds maximum for the opposition to refer to Gradgrind and start quoting him to you. Then, tears form in their misty eyes as they start emoting and thinking of the poor ‘ickle children, bless their hearts, who don’t have any enjoyment in their lives. That one lesson where the teacher lets them have boiled sweet to describe something will be the lesson that will transform their lives far more, in their misty tearful eyes, than any systematic approach to learning. The big bad meany teacher is stealing all the funny wunny from the, bless their hearts, poor ‘ickle children.’ 

Students love Maths. They love it for many reasons and I can see why as I go through Friday’s cover lesson. Mainly, it is the systematic approach to work.

Task  1: Increase the number by 10%.

Students had 15 numbers and they had to increase the number by 10%.  

The students first had to work out what ten percent of the figure was and then added it.

This was mirrored in the next two tasks.

Task 2: Decrease the number by 10%

Task 3: Increase the number by 5%, 15% or 20%.

As a teacher, I timed them and we feedback the answers after the allocated time.

From an English position, I found the whole process really interesting, because I was doing it with the students. It was interesting because I was watching the development of a system. After fifteen goes the students had trained themselves with an approach to solving the problem. Usually, when we get students to do something like this in English we usually get them to do a maximum of ten. I’d say we rarely go for more than ten because it seems like too much. Here I could see why it is so important that a student does a large number of attempts otherwise how do you embed it. I have hundreds of texts books for English and none of them make students go beyond five or ten questions on one subject. You see – it is ingrained in our thinking. The ‘ickle child, bless their hearts, can’t cope in English with ten of those pesky questions. Make it five, God bless them.

By number fifteen you have the pattern formed in your head. By number fourteen, I knew what to do and I was securing my knowledge of the system for getting the answer. Task 2 was interesting because it is a slight change in the system. Instead of increasing we are decreasing. Interestingly, students made a mistake. They continued to increase instead of decrease. Once they discovered this mistake they could easily rectify it. However, it showed that students made assumptions based on the pattern for Task 1. Then, they repeated the process fifteen times again, allowing them to build up the knowledge of how to decrease a number by ten percent. Both tasks were working on the same system but working on slight variations.

The final task added an extra layer of complexity by changing the percentage number which meant a further calculation. Therefore, they were repeating the same calculation from Task 1, but this time they had another step to do before they reached the answer.  

So, what is the relevance to English? I think we are missing out something huge in terms of teaching and it fits in with Direct Instruction in English. We don’t get students to practise enough in lessons. We, in my opinion, place too much emphasis on the explanation rather than the development of systems. Take commas. We’ll bring out the comma lesson occasionally to address a problem. The lesson will feature lots of explanation and a bit of practice. Then, with the next piece of writing we do with them we question our ability to teach as it seems the class have forgotten that lesson you did on commas that involved a boiled sweet. Simply we don’t do practice like Maths and that is our downfall. We view practice as boring. Boring for the students as they are doing the same thing again and again - bless their poor ‘ickle hearts. Boring for the teacher because they have got to mark the work. 

Practice isn’t a dirty word when it comes to creative writing but it is a filthy word when you place it anywhere near grammar and construction of sentences. People yawn when they refer to a SPAG lesson. It has been ingrained in our brains that it is devoid of fun, interest and excitement. We often apologise for the lesson, yet these lessons could be some of the biggest deal breakers for students. Look, you can have a boiled sweet if you do this work in the grammar lesson.

The Period 5 cover lesson on a Friday has made me review how I use practice in lessons and specifically from a grammar position. Therefore, I have created a resource, which will need a bit more polish, to help build this practice element in lessons. For fun, I have based it on commas and decided that students need to work on commas. They need to work on where to place commas in a sentence. The structure of the resource models the Maths one. You set the system up and students have to repeat the system fifteen times. Each task slightly modifies the original system. However, repeated practice is key. I have attached the resource here for people to see here.

Rather than spent time explaining, I am going to get students to do the task and then correct if they have it wrong. After all, these students will have had numerous explanations of how to use a comma. This is about learning through practice rather than through explanations. We want it to be an automatic process and this takes practice – something we don’t give enough time to, because it stifles creativity. Are we really developing the system? Are we committing a system to memory? 

We’ve all seen videos of the Mathematical gifted children who can do a billion sums a minute. Wouldn’t it be nice if we had something similar in English? A child who can quickly add a comma. I think we can, but first we need a massive overhaul of how we practise things in lessons. MFL and Maths are experts on this and I think English teachers need to visit their lessons to see what we can steal from them. And, umm, maybe save us some time with planning and marking. 

Thanks for reading,



  1. Amazing blog! I would never have attempted the cover work, I would rather have marked, but actually you can learn a lot from maths. I don't think I will look at a maths teacher or english lesson the same now.

  2. I understand the thought process here, and I wonder if this sort of teaching would work at peak efficiency if interspersed throughout a unit? I don't have a lot of experience in the classroom, so I'd love to get your take on this suggestion.

  3. Xris, thank you for this post. Looking at lesson practices from a Math’s point of view, I can see how English teachers are emphasizing the explanation of a lesson whether than let the students at it. This seems like a no brainer way of getting students to learn mechanics. However, while a math problem is always going to have a correct answer, there are several nuances to a student’s writing. Rules and exceptions may need to be explained more in Enghlish than in math, so that a student of writing may have an arsonal of mechanics to use or break. I agree that being systematic with English is like a swear word. Having a system in place may cloud our view of the wonderful ideas and thoughts that our students express with grammar that isn’t in the system.

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  5. Beautiful post.Thanks for sharing article. I am actually instigated by you for blogging.


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