Headaches Across the Curriculum: what’s the point in whole-school numeracy?

In September I saw this photo and hurried to send it to another teacher in our department so that I wouldn’t be alone in my wailing and gnashing of teeth.

 numeracy argh

Bless the teacher who made it; she is clearly working hard to accord with (what seems to be) a misguided whole-school policy on literacy and numeracy. Even a cursory search on Twitter/edu-blogs throws up a host of similar policies and initiatives, all of which have two shared features:

  • They do a lot to raise the visibility of literacy and numeracy as ‘a thing we do in our school’
  • They seem very unlikely to raise students’ standards of literacy or numeracy, but do seem to be eating into subject time (i.e. they may be actively harmful)

I find this baffling and assume that it is driven by the twin desires to conform to the Ofsted framework and to ensure that the maximum possible number of students reach benchmarks in English and Maths. Although I can’t claim to have any expertise in ‘what Ofsted wants’ (having experienced three inspections in four years, I don’t think Ofsted know either), the September 2014 framework seems to mostly be focused on outcomes rather than on processes. The parts that could be construed as referring to ‘whole-school literacy and numeracy’ are these:

  • “Literacy includes the key skills of reading, writing and oral communication that enable pupils to access different areas of the curriculum. Inspectors will consider the impact of the teaching of literacy and the outcomes across the range of the school’s provision… Inspectors will consider the extent to which the school intervenes to provide support for improving pupils’ literacy, especially those pupils at risk of underachieving.”
  • “Inspectors will consider…how well pupils apply their mathematical knowledge and skills in other subjects in the curriculum, where appropriate.” (emphasis my own)
  • “In arriving at judgments about progress, inspectors will usually consider how well: … progress in literacy and mathematics are assessed by drawing on evidence from other subjects in the curriculum, where this is sensible.” (emphasis my own)

If I could have three wishes for secondary schools, with regards to whole-school literacy/ numeracy, they would be these:

  • Schools should relentlessly focus on improving students’ literacy (in the generalised sense of literacy), but only focus on activities that will actually make students more likely to be literate.
  • Teachers should not wedge numeracy or literacy into lessons. If anyone is doing so out of good intentions (e.g. hangovers from a previous school or policy), it should be discouraged.
  • Every subject should be taking responsibility for giving their students access to the vocabulary and syntax specific to that academic domain.

I won’t explain these in turn, as they are syntheses of several different thoughts. However, I hope that clarifying those thoughts will make the above seem sensible (heady optimism).

Does literacy matter?

It gets a yes from Britney

Yes. Emphatically yes. Low literacy is linked to reduced life chances, in terms of social and economic (*shiver*) participation. High literacy lets you put more in your head and share what’s already in there. More grandly, it’s been described as being a right that allows people to realise their other rights (Amartya Sen: the gift that never stops giving) and more starkly, consistently strong correlation is found between low literacy and the experience of poverty (Clarke and Dugdale, 2008). Ensuring all students reach a minimum standard in literacy seems a fantastically worthy goal.

My working definition of literacy (i.e. I have made it up) is:

  • Being able to read at the level expected of a ‘normal’ adult
  • Having an adequate general knowledge that you can read non-specialist text and take meaning from it
  • Being able to communicate clearly in an appropriate register (both in writing and in speech)
  • Being able to take intended meaning from non-specialist speech (and reflect the register, if needed)
  • Being able to learn new, non-technical words without needing expert instruction (e.g. a dictionary and a context should be enough)

Does numeracy matter?

I do believe so

Yes, and moreso than would be expected. Low numeracy is linked to narrowed life chances, but mostly in terms of outcomes relating to physical and financial health (Rowlands, 2009). Innumeracy increases vulnerability, from everyday things like pay, taxes, utilities, etc, to accessing the job market (about 26% of skills shortage vacancies result from a lack of numeracy skills, according to UKCES in 2014) to the ease with which you can be exploited or manipulated. For example, someone with low numeracy might not appreciate how significant an APR of 5.8%….or 5853%…actually is, or might find it hard to contextualise the annual spend on unemployment benefit (£4.91bn in 2011-12) in terms of overall welfare spending (£159bn in 2011-12). More positively, high numeracy facilitates access to mathematical fluency (which opens up a host of opportunities in terms of social and economic participation and general utility*).

My own definition of numeracy is different to what tends to be used, and is the minimum that I think an adult needs:

  • Proportional reasoning (simplistic example: having a recipe for 4 people, needing to feed 10 people, and being able to decide what to buy more of if you already have some of the ingredients).
  • Adequate mental and written calculation at the level expected of a ‘normal’ adult (e.g. knowing there must be a mistake if 6 people had a main at £12.50 and the bill comes to £50).
  • Statistical literacy: being able to ask meaningful questions when presented with a statistic. For example, MigrationWatch report that “94% of Britons think that Britain is ‘full up’.” Questions that immediately spring to mind are: Who did you ask? How many people did you ask? What was the actual question? What was the context when you asked them? Similarly, being able to consider a statistic in its own right without immediately rushing to confirm existing biases. A grim example of the latter would be the Pope’s estimate that 2% of clergy are paedophiles; it would lead most of us to quickly conclude there is a horrifying and exceptional problem in the Church…unless we ask about the larger picture).


Are they equally important? Are they whole-school responsibilities, transcending all subjects?

They are both very important as outcomes. Literacy has value as a means and as an end (i.e. it is inherently valuable). Numeracy has value as a means – it facilitates access to things that are valuable. They don’t need equal distribution of input.

Should they be responsibilities/priorities for all adults in education?

Yes, but the extent of the responsibility differs depending on role and subject. Some are more responsible for attainment in literacy and numeracy than others. For example, it seems sensible to have a literacy coordinator who oversees intervention programmes for children who are reading at a level below their chronological age, trains staff, etc. That person has a lot of responsibility and accountability. It doesn’t make sense for an MFL teacher to be accountable for students’ grasp of when to use the median as a measure of averages.

Tentatively, I think these are the responsibilities for all adults in education (those with a ◊ may even be applicable to those who aren’t in a teaching role) as they all feed towards an ethos of prizing the status of being ‘a literate and numerate person’ without leading to a change in day-to-day workload:

  1. Be literate and numerate (!!!) and take positive steps to become so if you’re not◊
  2. Whilst not discouraging/demotivating students, be diligent and relentless in correcting errors in numeracy/literacy, including when outside of a classroom setting◊
  3. Be able to give a technically sound explanation/correction when a student makes an error. Schools should, possibly, consider having a consistent approach in these explanations/corrections.(◊?)
  4. Make conscious decisions about choosing an appropriate register when speaking to students (e.g. a whole-school decision to use Standard English**, which is rationalised to students) ◊
  5. Show enthusiasm for, and pride in, being literate and numerate. Never boast of your incompetence when it comes to any aspect of literacy/numeracy. ◊
  6. Be a vocal role model for aspects of numeracy and literacy where you plan to improve your own knowledge. This is a valuable opportunity to meaningfully model what a growth mindset is; wanting to improve at something and allowing yourself to be seen to strive, even if success isn’t certain. ◊
  7. Within reason, and where possible, ensure any text or speech used in lessons is mindful of the students’ reading ages whilst being aspirational (i.e. expose students to speech and writing which is just out of reach without alienating them).

Some of these are very challenging and, I suspect, intimidating for some adults involved in education. I’m not always confident explaining to students why a phrase is incorrect (e.g. there’s a subtlety in explaining ‘I ran fastly’ is incorrect but ‘I ran quickly’ is not). Most people don’t speak Standard English as a matter of course – I had to learn to speak it as an adult since my Dublin dialect can alienate English people – and would need a lot of feedback to notice their deviations. This is not to say that there is anything wrong with other dialects – I love the special syntax and vocabulary of Barnsley and the surrounding villages (where else would someone exclaim “Go f___ thee self” to a police officer?) – or to deny that many forms of non-Standard English have their own grammar (“We was walking…” is a consistently conjugation in West Yorkshire and there are strict rules governing use of the copula  in AAVE (‘Black English’), such as “She been studying…”).

This list does suggest a different role for those who are championing literacy and numeracy in the school, and one that is more sensitive. Helping adults to feel confident with literacy and numeracy can be a more daunting task than for children as the stakes can feel higher and there is more risk of people being made to feel inadequate of unprofessional.

What should they look like in different subjects?

Every subject, every day:

  • Teachers speak and write English with high levels of technical accuracy.
  • Aspirational language is used in writing and in speech.
  • Students are expected to write and speak with high levels of technical accuracy. All teachers correct all errors, and insist on mistakes being immediately followed by the correct use (e.g. if a student says “The digits is…” they are expected to repeat the sentence using “The digits are…”
  • Teachers give access to – and insist upon the use of – their subjects’ specialist vocabulary. Such vocabulary has many roles: it aids concise and accurate communication; it allows us to compact complex ideas into manageable and mutually understood words and phrases; it acts as a shibboleth to feel (and show) that you are part of an academic community; it is interesting and beautiful. Many of the hallmarks of an elite education are, oddly, small things: knowing that the plural of maximum is maxima, or using the phrase bildungsroman in a sentence with the same ease as ‘coming-of-age-novel’. I can only dream of offering an elite education to my students, but I can at least try to shield them from feeling that they are academically inadequate because I haven’t given them access to the specialist language of my subject.
  • Teachers use numerical notation with high levels of technical accuracy. This is rarely relevant, but highly important when it does come up. A typical example would be to use the equals sign correctly, avoiding such clangers as 4×3=12+10=22 (because 4×3 doesn’t equal 22, so the equals sign can’t be used across one line).

countdown equals sign argh

Intelligent communication across departments

Consistency in explanations of literacy and numeracy basics is important. This can be led by the English and Maths departments, but doesn’t have to be. Examples would include ensuring that when Maths and Science teachers look at scatter diagrams, they are modelling the same steps for undertaking the process and have agreed on the core features that they expect students to use. Beyond that, I don’t see much need for collaboration; the reasons for drawing a scatter graph are quite different in those subjects (in science, it’s a means to an end – to analyse some intrinsically interesting data; in maths, it is the end – to analyse how the graph reveals underlying patterns in a jumble of data pairings).

What should it definitely NOT look like in different subjects?

  • Activities that you wouldn’t have done if there weren’t whole-school policies on literacy and numeracy. I’ve seen such horrors as English teachers asking students to multiply the numbers in that day’s date as a way of showing they have incorporated numeracy into the lesson.
  • Allocating time to something that is ‘literacy’ or ‘numeracy’ if you would have better used that time to further the aims of your subject. For example, asking students to make a pie chart of the distribution of rock-types in an environment when – in reality – no geographer would draw a pie chart by hand and the activity (which will take 10-20 minutes) side-lines what would have otherwise been a very swift examination of those facts.
  • The justification of literacy or numeracy in terms of specific career paths. This is a wholly extrinsic motivator (i.e. a de-motivator in the long run), fails to account for the myopic nature of children/humans (they find it hard to stay motivated by end-of-term exams, as even those feel too far away), can backfire if a child is certain that it isn’t a career path that interests them, and perpetuates an ethos that education is only valuable insofar as it makes you economically valuable (boo hiss!). Just tell them that being literate and numerate is the minimum we expect of all adults. Tell them that being literate and numerate supports them to be successful in the world and to pursue their aims once they are more certain about what they want to do.
  • Pretending that things that are really maths or English are literacy or numeracy (and thus taking time from other subjects without acknowledging that this is happening). For example, our students enjoy Times Tables Rock Stars and rolling numbers; it amazes me that Ofsted thought this counted as ‘numeracy across the school.’ Other than the positivity of adults who aren’t maths teachers, it wasn’t ‘across the school’ in any sense other than that it was happening in the hall instead of in classrooms. Conversely, there are lots of sensible whole-school literacy activities, such as weekly spellings on which all students are tested (having had a few days to learn them).
  • Doing tokenistic activities in form time. If you want the students to do maths or English in form time, you should just make form shorter and give more time to maths or English. Those lessons are taught by subject specialists and – generally – to more coherent groupings of students. I have rarely seen a form-time literacy/numeracy activity that would actually make students more literate/numerate – it is usually too hard for some, too easy for others, and just right for a small number but inaccessible because the form tutor lacks the knowledge or confidence to deliver it. I would make an exception for the following:
    • Well-run DEAR sessions (Drop Everything And Read). These are automatically differentiated and appropriate if (and only if) the students are reading books suitable to their reading age and that challenge their reading horizons. DEAR can be very effective if the supervising teachers are trained in running it well (e.g. reading with students, listening to students reading to them and giving feedback, challenging students to select more aspirational books).
    • Interventions that have strong evidence bases (e.g. Lexia, corrective reading programmes, inference training, etc) where there are consistently high expectations around behaviour and effort.

DEAR time - peanuts

Writing across the curriculum: scrap acronyms?

This is an area where I am quite a bit out of my depth as my expertise ends at having done an essay-based subject for my degree. I am more than happy to be corrected on this assertion:

Stop using acronyms to structure writing.

I get that ‘learning to write an essay’ or ‘learning to write a report’ are important skills to develop across a range of subjects. I’m less convinced that many of the literacy acronyms are actually working towards this aim. For example, a good history essay will be driven primarily by strong command of the events in question, subtle analysis of arguments and causes, a thoughtful choice of specific facts to illustrate and develop different points, and a coherent flow of those points. Such an essay can be thrilling and informative whilst being written in a dry or terse style; I don’t think VCOP would have a useful role to play. Conversely, if I lacked a sound recall of those elements, I don’t think that PEE would get me much closer to writing something worthy. It would be the same confused ideas, but in a more predictable format. Acronyms to help students recall the critical facts and arguments seem sensible, as do – possibly – a checklist along the lines of ‘As I move to a new point, is it clear what the point actually is? Have I substantiated each point? When I distil each paragraph to a single sentence, does the order of ideas make sense? Have I checked for any unintended repetition of vocabulary?’ I expect that many humanities and English teachers are snorting with derision as they read these; I am very much an observer on the side when it comes to teaching extended writing. I’d love to hear alternative viewpoints on this.


* For me, the main utility measure from being mathematically educated is the pleasure of knowing more maths. This morning I finally – TEN YEARS LATER ARGH – was able to make my own proof for ‘disappearing’ the constant when differentiating. I still feel a little giddy from the sheer joy of it and expect it will carry me through to 2015.

** David Foster Wallace – my go-to guy for saying things in ways I can only dream of – wrote on the importance of being able to speak and write in Standard English. I recommend it heartily.


Filed under Literacy, Numeracy

12 responses to “Headaches Across the Curriculum: what’s the point in whole-school numeracy?

  1. Dani,
    I think what is important regarding numeracy across the curriculum is teachers subject knowledge takes into account what a students numerical ability looks like on entry. For example, a student who achieved a level 4 at ks2 does not have secure number sense. They arrive and not all are confident at reading 6 digit numbers, they have not grasped securely that 0.3 is bigger than 0.27, and they may not be able to measure a 7cm or draw a 8cm line accurately.
    Teachers of other subject do need to have this knowledge for when situations arise within their own subjects. I think this is a sound starting point.
    Richard Deakin

    • Hi Richard,
      That is such a valid point – thank you for raising it. I included it in whole-school numeracy training a year ago but didn’t think of revisiting it when inducting new staff this year. I wish I’d included it in the post! That is one of the areas where collaboration across subjects does make sense (e.g. working with DT on how we’re showing students to use a ruler to measure, etc).
      I think it could probably be just as useful for literacy (e.g. all staff to know a ‘hitlist’ of common spelling errors, common grammatical mistakes, etc) for literacy that are common at different reading ages / attainment levels.
      Thanks for your comment:)

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  3. I agree completely with what you’ve said here but/and think there’s a separate but related issue that is receiving far less attention than this but is a bit of a headache for me as a geography teacher and I’m sure applies in other subjects too. And that is that the students completely compartmentalise ALL of the subjects, not seining to realise that life is actually a complex mixture of them all. Classic example; writing perfect PEE and PEEKER paragraphs/essays in English, but not applying that knowledge to an essay they write in geography. A maths related example from geography is my GCSE class looking at a bar chart or line graph like I’ve asked them to work out the overall annual rainfall for London and then handed them a cheeseboard. Equally (I imagine) that, if writing about a story or pork set in the industrial era (for English), they wouldn’t access all the stuff they learnt about industrialisation in their history lessons. I know I’ve gone off on a tangent, but this is a bigger concern for me. Students who do very well in English lost SPaG points in their geography assessments because they just don’t seem to think those rules apply in a 3 or 4 mark geography question! I’d be interested in your thoughts 🙂

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  6. Nia Chivers

    Thank you!Both your’s and Richards comments make so much sense to me.I am new in post as Numeracy Champion and as like many other schools in Wales am trying to maximise the use of form time . It’s very difficult , as you state to do this effectively. Have you ever seen this done?
    Thanks for your comments,

    Nia Chivers

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