3 tips to help teach primary school maths during lockdown – Jon Aspinox Writes

3 tips to help teach primary school maths during lockdown

If you’ve read my other blogs on home-learning – thank you for taking the time and I hope you found them helpful. It’s been lovely to receive a lot of positive feedback about the blogs – at the time of writing, my blog 7 tips for home schooling primary school children has over 45,000 views! So I’m hopeful that you’ll find this blog on maths just as useful.

Across the country, schools and parents have taken different approaches when it comes to learning maths at home. Unfortunately, I have seen lots of parents struggling with it. Some are confused by the work, as it looks very different from when they were at school. Some do not know the best way to go about teaching it, and unlike writing or other subjects, it’s hard for children to just ‘have a go’ without some prior teaching. Some parents are trying to set work themselves and don’t know where to start. Therefore in this blog I am going to attempt to cover all bases so that you can find some guidance that suits you. These are the things I will cover:

  1. An explanation of how maths is now taught in school so that you can support your children with their work.
  2. A guide to brilliant online resources that do the teaching for you.
  3. An explanation of the importance of learning number facts during lock down and how to do that.

1. Why did they change math?!

Have you seen The Incredibles 2? There’s a wonderful scene where Mr. Incredible is helping his son Dash with his maths homework. Eventually he throws down his pencil in frustration, crying “I don’t KNOW that way, I know this way, why would they change math?!” I can imagine many parents relate to that scene.

The reason they changed math (though from now on I’ll switch back to saying maths!) is that the new way is more effective. As a child you likely learnt maths by being taught a process, such as column addition, and then sitting quietly doing lots of calculations. You learnt the process and followed the process. This is called instrumental learning – it involves following rules, memorisation and long pages of ticks and crosses. The problem with it is that if you forget the process, or the process doesn’t make sense to you, you’re usually stuck (this is why some people claim they ‘don’t get maths’). In recent years there’s been a big swing away from this approach, to what is called relational learning, or mastery.

Mastery learning helps children make connections, building understanding in small pieces, with lots of discussion, using objects and pictures, thinking creatively and applying understanding to new situations to solve problems. In short, it helps you understand why 5 x 3 = 15, rather than just being able to do the calculation. 

Children still do lots of practice of the procedures involved in maths (like the instrumental style) but they also look at different methods of solving the same problems, giving them a deeper understanding of what’s going on.  

For example, here are some questions for a Year 3 child about addition, from a mastery scheme of work that thousands of schools follow, called White Rose:

Part 1 (source: White Rose)
Part 2
Part 3

You can see in part 1 that the children are taught lots of ways of visualising and manipulating numbers (Base 10 is equipment demonstrating the relative sizes of units, tens, hundreds etc), which we call fluency. In part 2 they need to talk about their understanding of what’s going on, which we call reasoning. And then in part 3 they are challenged to apply their understanding to new problems, called problem solving (you can see in part 3 that they don’t need to actually calculate the answers to sort the additions into the table). Fluency, reasoning and problem solving are the three aims of the National Curriculum for maths so you may encounter these terms in the maths teaching resources you access and it is likely your child understands what they mean.

Hopefully you can see how this new approach to maths learning is more effective for building strong foundations of understanding. Research has shown that it works – when you have the right tools, anyone can understand maths. 

What does this mean for you?

The biggest thing this means for you is that, if your child is struggling to understand their work, resist the temptation to ‘just do it the old-fashioned way.’ While instrumental learning will help them to complete rows of calculations, they’ll still struggle to do quite a lot of their work – especially the reasoning and problem-solving challenges.

Instead, I’d recommend having a discussion with them about the maths. Can they explain to you what is actually happening when you’re multiplying or dividing, for example? Don’t be afraid to get out apples, or Lego bricks, and move them around to demonstrate what’s happening (we call this the concrete method in teaching, and it’s a really important first step to understanding maths for children).

Don’t worry if you don’t really understand the work – sometimes just asking your child to explain to you what they’re doing is enough to help them work things out for themselves. I’m going to write another blog about how the mastery method works in more detail, but for now if all else fails, make use of the resources I’ve suggested below – they do the teaching for you!

2. Alternative schemes of maths learning during lockdown

If the work your child has been set is too dry, not the right level for them or too confusing/time-consuming/boring for you to help them with, then fortunately there are some brilliant alternatives available. I recommend ignoring the set work (your child’s school really won’t mind as they’ll want you to find something right for your family) and instead choosing one of these alternatives to follow.

I have had a look at lots of the available schemes and chosen what I think are the four best. All of these give daily maths lessons for children based on year group. All are free. Have a quick read and decide what you think would suits you.

Scheme:White RoseBBC BitesizeHamilton Trust Oak Academy 
Educational value?Very high. Many schools follow this scheme, though these resources are designed for parents home schooling.Mostly revision but very well explained.Very good.Very good.
Range of resources?Very clear teaching videos, activity sheets an answers for each lesson.Videos, animations, games and quizzes. Each lesson has several options.A few PowerPoint slides then practice sheets.A teacher presents a lesson via video and there are activities.
Adult input needed?Low if the children get it as they just watch a video and do a worksheet, but children may need help if they get stuck.Varies by activity.High. An adult needs to talk through the PowerPoint slides.High. Videos need to be paused at times for children to locate and do the activities.
Fun level?Quite dry.High.Quite dry.Middle.
Difficultly level?The maths is explained very well in the videos but content is quite tricky and will be new learning for many.Pitched as revision for an average child. Some parents say it’s too easy.Has different activities for children who understand well and those that are struggling (we call this differentiation) along with helpful tips.More difficult than BBC Bitesize.
Printing required?Yes.For some activities.Yes.No.
You should choose if:You understood the mastery approach to teaching I talked about earlier and want your children to follow this approach. You want your children to do new learning rather than revision.You were a bit thrown by the discussion of the mastery approach earlier. Your child is more difficult to motivate to do their maths work. You’re happy with your child doing mostly revision rather than new learning. You want your child to do some new learning but they can struggle sometimes.  Your child is working at an expected age level or above. They respond well to watching an actual teacher explain things. They stay motivated when they have little activities to do as the video goes along.

If none of these appeal and you want to forge your own path, here are some other things you may want to dip into instead:

Online games

  1. Oxford Owl – These are the people who publish the Biff, Chip and Kipper books as well as other reading schemes. They have some maths videos, games and activities, sorted by age.
  2. Maths Frame games  – A treasure trove of games, covering all maths topics.
  3. Maths Factor – This is Carol Vorderman’s website. She’s also doing daily lessons if you’re interested.

Paper worksheets to print off

  1. Twinkl is currently free using offer code UKTWINKLHELPS. Kids particularly love the Mystery Maths challenges, where they have to solve a range of problems to solve a mystery!
  2. Gary Hall’s website has thousands of resources organised by year group and learning objective. For each objective, the resources are arranged in a long list so can you easily see what you want. Then you just click on it, it opens in a new window by itself so you can print it off.

If you have lots of time to do fun maths learning:

If any of the above is too much for your family and you just want to have some fun with maths, that’s great too! Maths is fun! Here are some things to look at:




3. The value of number facts practice

Finally, I highly recommend getting your children to do some number facts practice every day. If this is the only maths they do during lockdown, it’ll be time VERY well spent.

The number facts I am referring to are some mathematical facts that it is really useful TO JUST KNOW OFF BY HEART. We teach them these through relational learning in school, but when these facts are memorised it FREES UP WORKING MEMORY FOR LEARNING and is also very motivating. For example:

Jill, John and Carrie are each learning about column addition and working out 28 + 17. They all start by adding the units (8 and 7). Jill remembers that 8 + 7 is 15 so she puts the 5 in the units answer space and moves the one ten to the tens column. She adds the tens, 2 tens + 1 ten + the extra 1 ten which makes 4 tens. The answer is 45. She has calculated this quickly and fluently.

John isn’t sure what 8 + 7 is. He remembers that he can add the numbers by putting 8 in his head and counting on 7 more, using his fingers. He does this and gets the answer 15. However by the time he has done this he has forgotten what to do with the 15, his processing power having been used to work out 8 + 7. Jill has already moved onto the next question. He feels slow and gets frustrated. He doesn’t like maths.

Carrie isn’t sure what 8 + 7 is either but she is motivated and wants to do well. She uses a number line to work out 8 + 7 but makes a slight error and gets the answer is 14. She remembers how to do the rest of the column addition and gets the answer 44. Carrie is pleased with her effort but when the teacher reads out the answers she discovers she is wrong. Carrie is upset and confused because she listened really well about how to do column addition and thought she followed the procedure correctly.

Do any of those children sound familiar? I’m not saying having these facts memorised will make everyone love maths and understand everything – but it can really help.

How to practice number facts

The facts that children need to have learned by the end of KS1 are:

  • addition and the related subtraction facts for numbers between 1 and 20 (eg if you know 7 + 9 = 16, then you know 16 – 9 = 7). We called these NUMBER BONDS. You might know that number bonds to 10 (eg 6 + 4) are important, but so are number bonds to all the other numbers within 20.

And by the end of KS2, they should know:

  • times tables up to 12 x 12 and the related division facts (eg if you know 3 x 5 = 15 then you know 15÷3 = 5). 

I would recommend about 5 or 10 mins of practice every day. There are lots of online games which are free, or you ask your own questions, verbally or written down. They should be able to answer within 6 seconds of first seeing/hearing the question.

Below is a list of what number facts they should be practising based on age. However we’ve been off school for a while now and they are probably a bit rusty. If they’re more comfortable at the Year 1 level even in they’re in Year 6, don’t worry. Have them practise at the level they’re comfortable at – they’ll work their way up. Just make sure before you start that they understand what is happening when you do the calculation – for example, that multiplying something by 5 means having 5 lots of it. If they don’t, the BBC series Number Blocks teaches this really well – it’s available in iPlayer.

  • Year 1:
    • count in 2s, 5s and 10s (eg 0, 2, 4, 6, 8 …)
    • addition and subtraction facts within 10 (eg 3 + 4 =)
    • 2, 5 and 10 times tables (eg 4 x 5 = )
    • addition and subtraction facts within 20 (eg 16 – 9 =)
    • 3, 4 and 8 times tables (eg 8 x 7 = )
    • 6, 7, 9, 11 and 12 times tables (eg 11 x 9 = )
  • Year 5 and 6: ALL OF THE ABOVE

Number bonds resources

For the addition and subtraction facts, this is a good interactive game for practising. Choose the Number Bonds option and then either Within 10 or Within 20. It also has some other sections like halves, doubles and times tables.

This website also has some more interactive games, as well as paper games and worksheets to practise addition and subtraction number facts within 20. Please note this is not a website you can just send children to, you will need to look and select what you want them to do.

Times tables resources

For times tables practice, the website Times Tables Rock Stars is brilliant and used in lots of schools. It is currently free but only for schools so you need to ask your school to get a subscription for you, if your child doesn’t have an account, or pay £6 a year for a family subscription. When a child first logs on, they design a rock star character complete with funky hairstyles and clothes. They can then play a range of fun games where they answer times tables questions. The more practice they do, the more money they earn to spend in the shop, buying things for their character. Some of the games cover all the times tables, some just ask the ones YOU have set (this is easy to do). Therefore children can practise at their level.  

Don’t forget: ANYTHING is better than nothing

If the thought of all this maths is giving you a heart attack, then just remember: any maths learning is better than nothing. If all you manage is a bunch of times tables and some old-school learning, it’s fine. As lockdown grinds on, the importance of everyone being happy and calm is growing – so don’t keep forcing the issue until there are tears (theirs or yours!)

If you can master mastery learning, though, then who knows – as well as being in a great position to help your kids out with their learning, you might find your own relationship with maths changing!

If you’d like some guidance in other subjects, check out my in-depth guides to reading and writing. For advice on dealing with reluctant learners, check out my 9 tips for motivating primary school-aged children.

And of course, if you have any questions about maths or anything else, just leave me a comment!

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