The challenges of teaching numeracy

By John O'Driscoll

As adult and further education tutors the challenge of teaching numeracy and mathematics cannot be underestimated.  Too often the emphasis is on calculation and application and less so on inspiration and exploration.

However, one advantage of operating in the adult education sector is that it allows us to deal with the subject of numbers in depth. What a FETAC module may lack in breadth more than compensates for in depth. Take the Level 3 Application of Number and Functional Maths route. “Number”- so called- will be covered twice with varying emphases between the former and the latter modules. A.O.N takes on measurement while F.M. approaches Algebra. This offers learners and tutors ample opportunity to creatively explore the fundamental topics in maths without the burden of a voluminous school text breathing down our necks. It is an ideal context for those partaking in second-chance education.

Likewise with Level 2 – Quantity and Number can dovetail neatly with Quantitative Problem Solving and provides space and time to consolidate the essential arithmetic and numeracy skills in any manner of approaches that the tutor and students deem relevant, interesting and fun.

What always works well is the element of surprise. Magic squares are always good fun and any 3x3 grid on any calendar page produces a pattern whereas the sum of the nine numbers will always be ‘add eight, to the smallest number in the grid then multiply the answer by nine – you have a ready-made magic square! The students can ask each other what is the smallest number in the grid and with the formula calculate the total!

Students often thrive on a bit of friendly competition. I use Math Dice – five six-sided die and one twelve-sided die. One person throws the twelve-sided die and then the five six-sided dice are thrown. Who will be the first to reach the total number on the big dice using the most number of smaller dice – just adding and subtracting. The challenge can be increased by using a random playing card as a multiplier for the twelve sided die and allowing all the arithmetic operations.   The visual numbers aspect of dice is very helpful. Magic dice can be found at Amazon.

The ‘calculator phone trick’ has proved a great favourite; invariably people want to show it off at home – have a person’s phone number ‘magically’ appear on the calculator display via a few simple operations - space forbids me from going into detail here but please visit my blog ( for this old trick and its explanation as to why it works! (Great for algebra too!)

And join our community on Google+ - FractionWatch.

And it those aforementioned ingredients of surprise and fun that are critical to an adult learner’s experience this time round – or maybe the first time round!

It would be only sanity, hardly modesty, to say I have all the answers to making numeracy and maths fun relevant and interesting but during Maths Week just passed, it was a great opportunity to meet and share our ideas and challenges with our fellow tutors across the further education sector. Linda Murphy and I from Tipperary ETB offered a workshop entitled A Sense of Number and Fractions in Action. The pitch went: effective approaches for aiding numeracy fluency, alongside various strategies for dealing with fractions, decimals and percentages, to include visuals, games, and interesting online 'build-your-own' resources.

Our workshop introduced what we feel to be those best suited to the numeracy/maths tutor and we can safely say the response was positive. We covered various strategies for teaching number in a fun, relevant and exploratory manner.

On my blog you will find examples of online interactive videos form EDpuzzle; flashcards and quizzes from Quizlet or There is great scope to build bespoke resources for the tutor’s specific needs that lets the student learn from exciting and user-friendly computer interfaces. These proved popular at the workshop.

Playing cards are indispensable for teaching with fun. Take ‘fraction reduce’, for example – have a bundle of playing cards – picture cards removed – and have players throw out cards. When 2 cards produce a proper fraction that can be reduced the person who spots it first wins the cards on the table. Let’s say a four of hearts is followed by an eight of spades – well that reduces to one-half! Fabulous Fractions by Lynette Long has lovely activities outlined in a really nice book.

 ‘Casting out nines’ is a lovely exercise where students can check their arithmetic and will really be amazed at the hidden pattern in numbers that will be revealed. It went down very well at the workshops – please check out the blog for a handout on this simple but amazing (I think!) pattern of number behaviour.

If I have an overarching philosophy of teaching maths it is that it certainly cannot lack application and calculation but it must also include avenues such as the ones I outlined that lead to exploration, inspiration, surprise and fun. The possibilities are endless.