Tag Archives: literacy

329. Quick acrostic starter

Here is a zero preparation revision or recap starter for you and it might tick a literacy/spelling box too. It’s fiendishly simple, but can be devilishly difficult to complete.

  1. Give students a topic word (eg circles) or use your school name.
  2. Tell them they have to complete an acrostic of maths words related to that topic or general revision words.

That’s it! You can make it more difficult by saying partners must have different words or narrowing the focus of the task.

Interestingly none of my students used the textbook index or Maths dictionaries to help them. The finished product could be used as a wall display, revision prompt or stuck on the front of an exercise book.

A Wise Word of Warning – W Maths words are in short supply.

Here is the example I used in class:

314. Maths is a foreign language 

If I had £1 for every time I heard ‘I don’t get it!’, I could probably buy a new (modestly sized) car. That phrase is banned in my classroom. What does ‘get’ mean? What is ‘it’? Did you actually read the question?

And there we have it: reading the question.

Today’s little life skill strategy can work for all levels of literacy – because you don’t need any! I’ve taught a lot of students who just shut down when they see wordy questions and don’t look at the big picture – literally. There can be a really obvious diagram and they will skip the question. They just don’t try!

Now as you may be aware, I’m based in Wales in the UK. For those outside the UK, Wales is a principality within Great Britain. Although everyone speaks english, the traditional mother tongue is welsh – it’s particularly spoken in the North/West of the country. If you attend a welsh language school, you can do all your exams in welsh. A GCSE is called a TGAU.

But why am I telling you this?

Well, this means that the WJEC/CBAC exam board publishes their exam papers in welsh and english. Identical papers, different languages. I teach over the border in England, where only one or two students per year can speak welsh. This is where it gets interesting …

I went through a welsh language ‘Mathemateg’ paper and picked out the questions which involved diagrams – I also picked out the matching English questions so I was clear on the questions (not a native welsh speaker, just a learner). I gave my GCSE class the Welsh questions and told them to figure out what was going on. After the initial disbelief they had a really good go at the questions. Their comments included:

‘Well, it’s obvious it’s a tally chart’ 

‘Just fill in the table with the numbers from the pattern’

‘That’s got to be a special type of triangle’ (answer isn’t correct, but idea was)

‘Just use angles in a triangle to work it out’

I was impressed – they were constructively arguing about questions and covering diagrams in good maths. When we went over the questions they were telling me how easy it was, yet the week before they’d skipped questions like the angle problem in an assessment! I explained why I’d done it and told them they didn’t need to keep the worksheets as I’d made my point. I was stunned by the number of students who wanted to take them home to show their parents – they were proud of their problem solving – 16 year olds wanting to show off their Maths skills!

This idea can be used with any bilingual exam board or any language that you speak that the students don’t. It’s a good tool for getting over ‘question blindness ‘ and literacy confidence issues too.

These are the exam papers I used:


CBAC TGAU Mathemateg

If you look at the web addresses there is one digit difference to differentiate between the languages, meaning if you go on the WJEC english language website you can find the welsh equivalent by swapping a 0 for a 5 in the second to last digit.

308. Zombie stats

I’ve used word length analysis for years as a source of comparative statistics. The concept is easy – you take a children’s book and a grown up book and compare the word lengths of the first 20, 40, 80 words. After you collect the information in a table, you can use this data to compare averages and the range.

Image credit: www.comingsoon.net
But what texts to use? Well – you can’t beat a bit of Dr Seuss, but what grown up text could you use. I can highly recommend this extract from ‘Pride and Prejudice and Zombies’:

Pride and Prejudice and Zombies by Seth Grahame Smith

Not only will you be investigating mathematical concepts, but you might just be inspiring a student to pick up a book and read.
Update: If you use the first chapter (say thirty words) of ‘Pride & Prejudice & Zombies’ you get some interesting data. The range is wide, but the highest frequency word length is just two. It’s a great conversation piece – why does this happen? The language is a very precise parody of 19th prose with all the correct connectives and no contractions eg ‘it is’ not ‘it’s’.

34. The Dancing Cipher

A different way to look at data and probability is to introduce letter frequency analysis.


I set pupils the task of finding out the letter frequency data for the english language. Not much of a challenge for a bright student with the internet.

However …
I then gave them four A4 sheets of symbols to decode. Literally four pages of code, with no hints except they had to determine two literary works and authors from it. They had two weeks to solve it.

In hindsight, they described it as the best homework ever. I had parents contact me to see if they had solved it correctly – not to help their child, they were in competition to see who would get it first!

How to do it
Pick a text which is freely available on the internet – it saves typing out pages of text. I chose ‘Through the Looking Glass’ by Lewis Carroll – lots of interesting words!

I found a great website which gives you the Dancing man cipher amongst others. You paste in your text and select your substitution cipher. It then encodes your text for you. I chose the Dancing Man as it was the second literary work: The Adventure of the Dancing men (A Sherlock Holmes story)

I pasted this into Word and this formed the homework.

The interesting thing about this substitution cipher is that it has 52 symbols and no spaces. It is tricky to cheat as you would have to know the name of the cipher and the full cipher was not published in the book. There is more than one variation of the code as different people have tried to fill in the missing symbols.

This task ticks all the boxes for data processing, coding, independent study and literacy. In fact several pupils came back and said they had read Conan-Doyle’s classic work as a result of a maths task.