Kids ‘losing out in maths owing to dire lack of story sums’
Pupils not getting a proper maths foundation because they are not given word problems, says literacy co-ordinator
Nolo has five marbles. Sipho has three marbles. How many marbles does Sipho need to win to have the same amount as Nolo?
It may seem like child’s play, but word sums are vital for pupils, especially from grades 1 to 3.
But some schools have been using government-issued supplementary maths workbooks as their main teaching tool, leaving young pupils without a proper foundation in maths and language.
This is according to research by Ingrid Mostert, a literacy co-ordinator for Axium Education, a privately funded NGO working with the Eastern Cape department of education and private companies to support rural schools in the province.
Workbooks have been provided to schools by the education department since 2011, so pupils have quality worksheets to practise what they have learnt in class.
But Mostert, who lives in the rural Eastern Cape where she teaches children a love of numeracy using maths games, noticed in 2017 that the books were being used as the main tools for lessons in some schools.
Part of Mostert’s PhD research at the Centre for Education Practice Research at the University of Johannesburg is analysing the types and quantity of word problems in maths workbooks for grades 1 to 3.
Her new article in the SA Journal of Childhood Education states: “In total there were 61 single-step additive relation word problems with numerical answers across the three grades. This is a small number in comparison to other countries. There was also an uneven distribution of problem types, with more problems in the easier subcategories and fewer or no problems in the more difficult subcategories.”
Word problems, also known as story sums, help children understand maths in context.
“As humans we create meaning through telling stories,” Mostert told Times Select. “This is why, ideally, learners should be introduced to the ideas of addition and subtraction through stories that make sense.”
Underlining the importance of word problems, University of Johannesburg education professor Nicky Roberts developed a new typology of story sums, placing them in different categories to explain what kinds of maths they tested.
Mostert used these categories to analyse every addition-type word problem in the Grade 1 to 3 maths workbooks.
She found there are 61 addition story sums in the books that children were exposed to in three years – but many were of the simple kind and there were not enough of the more challenging types.
She concluded that 61 “is a small number in comparison to other countries”.
A study showed Turkish Grade 1 to 3 textbooks have between 139 and 190 word problems, while a set of Bruneian textbooks had 389.
There were no equalising sums – such as the marbles example – and very few comparison sums.
Mostert said that if only workbooks were used in class, children were not being exposed to certain types of problems that help them “engage with useful mathematic problems”.
Education department spokesperson Elijah Mhlanga said he would be surprised if teachers only used workbooks as teaching tools, as one of the “beauties of the CAPS curriculum is a standardised set of weekly lesson plans and objectives”.
“The fact that the National Education Collaborative Trust, which supports the department, is involved in the area where teachers were using workbooks as a teaching tool, showed the government had discovered there were underperforming schools and provided ‘support, attention and monitoring’.
Mostert said that in the Eastern Cape in 2018 the trust toolkits provided teachers with a set of lesson plans, one for each day. “Most lesson plans still refer to the education department’s workbooks but the workbooks are no longer the primary teaching resource.”