16 July 2015

Words of Wisdom: Teaching Foundation GCSE

As expected, the last #mathsTLP of the school year was a bit quieter than usual. As host, one of my jobs is to keep the chat flowing. So I filled a gap in conversation with a question:
I hadn't been planning to ask this question - it was just the first thing that came to mind at a moment when I wanted to get people talking. But then something quite extraordinary happened. Over the few days that followed, I was inundated with helpful advice - I received over a hundred replies to my question. These words of wisdom come from experienced teachers. Teachers who've taught low attainers, cared about them, believed in them. Teachers who've done everything they can to give these students opportunities in life, who've put huge amounts of effort into supporting them. I admire these teachers. I want to be one of these teachers.

"Throw away the handbook" ~ @solvemymaths

I received so much advice that it was all a bit overwhelming. I went back through every notification and made notes. It would be wrong not to share some of the ideas here. After all, I'm not the only teacher who'll be teaching low attainers for the first time next year. I hope that others will also benefit from all this good advice.

1. Building relationships

"Make them believe in themselves" ~ @FKRitson

There were lots of replies about how to build self-esteem, confidence and trust. Advice included:
  • "Friday biscuits or a cup of tea works wonders. Instill confidence & let them know you believe in them. With one of my groups we took a lesson off to design and decorate our own mugs. Best quote 'Miss, you've got a teapot! That's like a dead posh restaurant'".  ~ ‏@Ms_Kmp. "I was amazed at the impact a cup of tea had for one young man. Came for help & a cuppa every Wed!" ~ ‏@takepi21
  • "Instilling confidence is the key. Make the lessons non-threatening (they are in the set because they "fear" maths).... Make it different to the diet they've been served thus far; try stuff, it will breed confidence." ~ ‏@andylutwyche 
  • "Your sales pitch is that it's 'us against the exam', 'we can beat this'. Their self belief in maths will be low, they will be v sensitive to feeling patronised". ~ ‏@BodilUK 
  • "Give them lots of evidence to show they're getting C grade work right. You're not promising it as a grade, but they need possibility." ~ @adamcreen 
  • "Lots of repetition! They'll prob be low in confidence so build this up. Word things in ways that don't belittle them. ... If they don't get something, then "maybe I didn't explain it very well..." It helps their confidence." ~ @WelshReady 

2. Pick your battles

"As Napoleon said 'If you can't be strong everywhere, pick a place and be strong there.'"  ~ @MrMattock

A number of replies were about choosing which topics to teach. I won't be able to cover the whole syllabus - far from it - so I should focus on a limited number of key topics.
  • "If you can give them a quick win … that is always good. Index laws are nice as they are legitimately C-Grade but easy as hell! ... They won't get good at it all, so decide what you want them to understand and reinforce that." ~ ‏@MrMattock 
  • "Don't be picky either, they might get Pythag but not directed numbers." ~ ‏@DJUdall 
  • "Don't be bound by the grade of a topic - expanding brackets is easier than many E grade topics! … Focus on topics with visual cues and predictable processes, such as transformations or scatter graphs." ~  ‏@danicquinn 
  • "When gearing up for the exam, you may want to condense your curriculum into 'hot topics'. Keep it focussed. ... We picked out the favourite 30 or so question types from exams over the last 5 years." ~ @jase_wanner 
  • "Doubt you'll be able to get through everything. Pick most important bits and teach them well" ~ @Teachanana

Many teachers told me that numeracy is key. I will need to have "a relentless focus on core numeracy skills" (@ThainMike).

"Numeracy skills and times tables. Again, again and then some more!" ~ @RandomNumeracy
3. Memorisation

"Go for memorisation through every memorisation technique known to man" ~ @solvemymaths

For the vast majority of our students, conceptual understanding is vital. Teaching maths 'properly' is a maths teacher's raison d'être. But these are exceptional circumstances. Give a low attaining student the opportunity to get a C in GCSE Maths - by any means necessary - and you've opened a window of opportunity in a young person's life.
  • "I find repetition helps. Do things quickly but repeat often". ~ ‏@MissMathsDla
  • "Bring variety to memorisation: flash cards, memory king (one stands up and gets drum roll before reciting first 10 primes, etc)... " ~ @danicquinn
  • "Most of their problems are issues with fluency so they can't *get* C/D grade topics when modelled. Remedial work on number is essential for quite a while at the start of the year. ... I always start with first 15 squares, first 5 cubes, and roots/ cube roots. Make it compulsory to be able to recite them in 10 seconds within a week & time/ game them. ~ @StuartLock
  • "Find interesting ways to reinforce key number concepts; that will be their most serious need" ~ @MrMattock
  • "You want silly dances, phrases, gesticulations, daft images to associate...everything". ~ @solvemymaths
  • "YMCA becomes y = mx + c... angle sizes memorised by arm actions... and the circle song is a must. Diddle, the median' s the middle" ~ @7wittermiss.
A number of people recommended Sticky Studying for memorisation techniques.

4. Resources

"Never let them let go of the basics. Drill them in every lesson". ~ @DJUdall

Many teachers recommended resources. The mostly common recommendation was Numeracy 5-a-day from Corbettmaths.

Times Table Rockstars was also recommended. @MrReddyMaths suggested adapting it by teaching the tables upfront each week and cutting out the music - "Emphasise 'competition' with themselves by highlighting how much they're improving over the week".

Mathsbox was recommended, as were Andy Lutwyche's resources on TES, Bread and Butter resources from Just Maths and Essential Skills from MathedUp!.

Thanks to @tessmaths for sending me a set of colourful Foundation Revision Cards from the MA - these will be very helpful.

@DIRT_expert suggested using Cumulative Starters to build up skills and tackle fear. Students are asked the same questions at the start of each lesson but more questions are added as they learn new content.

5. More ideas

"You mightn't enjoy lessons at times; you'll enjoy the intellectual challenge it'll give you" ~ @siobhanorb

Here are some more things I need to think about in my planning:
  • I need to find out about the literacy levels of my students and their attendance. 
  • A few people suggested entering them for Higher GCSE rather than Foundation (there are mixed views on this). 
  • @ColleenYoung suggested I do lots of short mini-tests with immediate feedback. 
  • ‏@danicquinn suggested mini mocks, where you first work together on a "mock mock" (same questions, different numbers) before the real one.
  • @NEdge9 talked about the importance of students knowing the meaning of key words. She said that sometimes they can do the maths but can't remember what the words mean. 
  • @missdenzil said that lessons should comprise small tasks, lots of different activities, rewards, competition, whiteboard work, and mastering basics.
@MrBenWard summarised the key messages nicely in this tweet: 
When I first meet my new class in September, no doubt some things will take me by surprise. But the advice I received this week has got my head buzzing with ideas and I feel ready - dare I say excited - to get started with this class.

Huge thanks to all who tweeted and emailed me ideas and resources. In order to keep this post a reasonable length, I haven't been able to include all the replies I received, but every single piece of advice was valuable and will be factored into my planning for next year. Thanks also to @ColinTheMathmo for helping me collate and organise the tweets. 

I'm so grateful that I can rely on the maths teacher Twitter community to support me throughout the year. A challenge lies ahead, but I've got expert advisers at hand to see me through it. 


  1. Thanks sooooo much for this, although I haven't got my timetable yet, I suspect that I will have a year 10 foundation group, my first for quite a few years

    1. Thanks for your comment, I'm really glad you've found it helpful.

  2. Great list of ideas for keeping kids engaged at all levels!

    The Math Maniac

  3. Great list of ideas for keeping kids engaged at all levels!

    The Math Maniac

  4. As a low achiever in Maths myself ... All this advice looks brilliant. Might even think about taking GCSE maths again ...

  5. Some great advice, in particular I agree with relationships, ensuring they know you believe in them, don't give up, cover topics quickly to avoid boredom but revisit often - thanks for sharing

  6. Great advice!
    I teach math to five or six groups each week. One set of pupils is known as my bottom ability class twice a week. I use the color coding technique to help them to make progress. Every week one timetabled lesson is spent on revisiting the basics and any particular topics that were not understood previously.
    I also carve out some time for timetable practice, videos and fun games during the lesson as well. High expectations matter however. The other weekly lesson is devoted to marking any homework, revision questions and proper exam technique. This is the format that I use for all math lessons with all students in the school. I also use weekly and revision quizzes to try to boost their memory recall skills.
    We do a lot of printed out worksheets. With my more able pupils, I like to get them to test each other. Or I ask them to mark each other's homework occasionally, and the odd practice paper the week before the exam.
    I have seen that same photo elsewhere somewhere..

  7. What an amazing blog post. I'm currently doing my teacher training and helping with a set4 Y11. All the advice on this post will make such a difference. Thank you

  8. I just wanted to say, thank you for these suggestions! I was fortunate enough to come across it just as I took on a Foundation class. I actually took notes from this post and have implemented all of the suggestions over the last few months. The mindset of the class has changed- they have made so much improvement and are actually believing in themselves, that they have a chance at being successful in their exams. Not trying to teach the whole curriculum, memorising essentials through every known trick in the book, and never letting them forget the basics- best advice I've had this year!