Investigating strategies to help learners solve Functional Skills maths questions

Macclesfield College

This project was designed to support learners studying Functional Skills maths and to raise their confidence, competence and achievement in this subject. The aims of the project were to:

  1. Work with the learners to identify what presented the challenge and barriers when completing Functional Skills maths questions.
  2. Develop strategies to overcome the barriers with the learners and make these strategies available to a wider audience.

You can download a PDF of this report on the Excellence Gateway.


The project, which focused on language barriers in Functional Skills maths, was delivered by Macclesfield College. Macclesfield College is a provider of Further Education, Higher Education and skills training; serving the Cheshire East area and beyond. The project was led by the head of maths and English with involvement from the Functional Skills maths teacher, GCSE teachers and the one-to-one intervention teacher. One-to-one sessions were delivered to learners over a period of six weeks. These revealed common areas of concern amongst learners. Over the course of the six weeks a range of strategies were trialled and developed with the learners and those with the most impact were then used in classes. The project reported an increase in confidence among the learners who adopted the strategies and a positive response from the teachers involved. In the majority of cases, there was an increase in achievement rates for those learners using the strategies.


The reform of Functional Skills mathematics has brought an additional challenge to the qualification. Questions in Functional Skills require a good command of the English language, even more so since the reform. Many learners struggle with reading the question and decoding a mathematical operation embedded within the question.

In house self-assessment and review identified achievement in Level 1 Functional Skills maths as an area for improvement. Despite good and outstanding teaching and a robust planning and assessment cycle, learners were not succeeding at the desired rates. This project was identified as an opportunity to explore the reasons behind this lack of success.

The aim of the project was to give an insight into how learners perceive questions, identify the real barriers to achievement and develop tools to overcome them.

It was hoped there would be a positive effect on the learners taking part in the study and that they would gain confidence and realise their mathematical knowledge is not necessarily their stumbling block.

We aimed to offer them a variety of support approaches to help them to move forward. Support would be personalised and could be either focused around maths, reading or comprehension (or a mixture of all three).


  • Image showing learners underlining key information

    Underlining key information

    We began the project by asking learners to complete a questionnaire that examined their views on maths and what they found challenging about the Functional Skills exam. (Appendix 2) The results of the questionnaire were useful and identified a common concern amongst all learners. Word problems seemed to be the issue, with all learners identifying word problems as one of the areas that caused them problems at school or, in a previous year, at college.

  • Learners identified that the number of words in a question is a barrier to them so a way of breaking a question down would be useful.
  • Initial questioning was followed by a session that explored strategies with the learners. The questions given in each session were similar, to allow learners to get to grips with the strategies (Appendix 3). Learners explained what they had difficulty with and collaborated with the project lead to develop strategies that would help them (Appendix 4).
  • The project lead and learners studied a variety of mechanisms designed to make the question more accessible. These included: highlighting, annotating, drawing images, storyboarding, posing questions, breaking a question into parts/ steps, ticking off elements as they were completed. Learners were provided with pens and highlighters as appropriate.

    Image showing learners adding amounts of time

    Adding amounts of time

  • These mechanisms and strategies were trialled in subsequent weeks. Initially these sessions were face to face but, due to the effects of COVID-19, some sessions were delivered using Zoom or MS teams. Learners were able to explore all the strategies but, in every case, certain strategies were proving most popular. Learners seemed to prefer the strategies of underlining key information and ticking off elements as they were completed. Additionally, using diagrams to represent time also supported learners in adding amounts of time (Appendix 5 and shown here in the image).
  • Over the subsequent sessions these strategies were refined, working closely with the learners to ensure they got maximum benefit from using them.
  • Learners were given a set of two questions each lesson and asked to recall the strategies. Once they had recalled them, they were asked to highlight what they thought was important in the
    Image showing learners using diagrams to represent time

    Using diagrams to represent time

    question. As they completed parts of the question, some learners needed to be reminded at every step of the problem to tick elements off, other learners were competent to do this independently.

  • An additional session was included that took out the language/ words to allow learners to focus solely on the maths. This was added in response to learner feedback (Appendix 6).
  • An exit questionnaire captured learners’ feelings and views after the intervention (Appendix 7).
  • The same process was followed with a small group to examine the effect of the strategies within a group situation.
  • The project lead then demonstrated the strategies in several classes. The class teacher was able to continue to utilise the strategies and techniques.
  • The strategies were also employed in one-to-one sessions.

Professional Learning: Evidence of changes in teaching, learning and assessment practices

The process of completing the action research has had a notable effect on the teaching, learning and assessment practices of all members of the team. By working collaboratively with learners, the strategies developed had a much more impactful result, as the learners themselves were able to articulate what it was they needed and select from a suite of mechanisms and strategies that they could trial themselves. The feedback from learners was extremely positive and, because they were involved in the process and had ownership of the strategies, they were much more engaged. This sensitivity to capturing authentic learner voice and being influenced by it has been a strength of the project and something that will be further developed within the department.

The project lead, having a science and maths background, was very outcome focused and wanted to know the reasons why the strategies worked. Initially the project lead wanted all findings to be proven and to include control groups. This tightly controlled approach was supressing the natural evolution of the project and restricting the action research, which is a valuable process in its own right because teachers and learners are given more ownership and encouraged to be responsive in terms of what is making a difference for them.

Working with a mentor allowed the project lead to be more reflective and this created opportunities that may have been missed had they taken the purely scientific route.

The benefits of following an action research model have allowed the project lead, an experienced maths teacher, to be open to trying new ideas and working more collaboratively with learners.

Evidence of improved collaboration and changes in organisation practices

The project lead is also the head of department and is used to observing colleagues as part of their role. The action research model allowed the project lead to work more collaboratively with staff and demonstrate the strategies to classes. This was a valuable way of working and one that the department will adopt as a positive way of working together. This peer-to-peer delivery allowed the class teacher to see the strategies working in his own classroom. Seeing his learners react so positively to the strategies has encouraged him to adopt them in all lessons. In a similar way, the one-to-one teacher was also able to observe and then adopt the strategies.

Seeing how enthused both the project lead and the learners were was infectious and motivated other members of staff to buy in to the project.

Evidence of improvement in learners’ achievements, retention and progression

Learner feedback was positive throughout the project with learners completing the six-week one-to-one programme commenting as follows:

“I used to feel quite lost but now I actually do understand [Functional Skills maths questions]. I feel that if I saw them in an exam, I would get the answer; whereas before I didn’t.” (DS)

“Underlining helps me see the maths and ticking helps me break it down – it’s not such a big issue for me” (PL)

Learners stated they had increased confidence in topics they previously couldn’t answer. In PL’s final session she said:

“When I went to my lesson last week, I didn’t even ask for help. I was doing my ticking. I got all of them right. I didn’t need to ask for help but I do still need a bit of reassurance.” (PL)

She was working on percentages which was a topic she mentioned as one that challenged her.
Learners who experienced the strategies in the class situation were equally as positive:

“Ticking off helps you know what you’ve done – you don’t add things twice” (CP)

They feel that their knowledge will go with them into the exam:

“I feel like I won’t feel nervous when I go into the exam – I feel like I’ve done a lot more questions.” (DS)

This learner was originally referred to the project as they were struggling to pass. After the six sessions, they passed their Functional Skills exam.

One learner in a classroom setting really identified exactly why the strategies helped him.

“[It] simplifies the question – turns it into maths instead of English in my head. So many words – for me I need to turn the words into maths – this really helps.

Ticking stops you forgetting – I can say to myself – hold up a second have I done this bit?” (OK)

The strategies were demonstrated to two classes and, interestingly, the learners were more responsive in the class where the project lead had previously taught several learners. The learners who had not met the project lead before were more discriminating of the strategies but ultimately saw their value.

For some learners the strategies gave them a focus, something to work towards. The strategies broke the problem down:

“The method helps – it makes sense – stops you doing it twice. Plus, it’s a relief you’ve done it.” (KM)

The majority of learners increased their scores and went on to pass the Functional Skills exam. Some learners had been failing repeatedly so this was a milestone for them in their college career.

The learners were enthusiastic about their one-to-one sessions and could see the value of the project. There was only one instance of absence over thirty-six sessions and the learner was quick to rearrange a new session. One learner admitted they had not wanted to pass as they were scared of going onto GCSE and the challenge increasing further. Having passed their Functional Skills Level 1 exam after two years of trying, they are now working with their class teacher on GCSE concepts and have said:

“I’m going to give it a go and smash it.” (CH)

The learners also began in a small way to start to see the need for the words in the question. The class teacher worked closely with learners to explain the need for contextualisation within the question:

“The response after they’ve answered the question is that it was a lot easier than they thought and why do they have to use so many words. I’ve always explained that that’s how maths is in real life; rather than just being asked what 15×24 is, it might be there are 24 plants in a row and 15 rows so how many plants are there altogether?” (MW)

Learning from this project

The strategies and mechanisms were successful because they came from the learners. The project lead and teachers involved acted as facilitators to enable the learners to recognise what they found difficult and what would help them. As they were so heavily involved, this had the greatest benefit. Teachers as professionals naturally want to ‘teach’, but in this process, the teacher needs to facilitate, coach and enable.

Teachers involved in the project not only utilised the strategies but, in some cases, further developed them in collaboration with learners:

“I’ve tried to get them to not skip the long-worded questions that they see as difficult by covering up the question with a mini whiteboard and then revealing the question line by line (less daunting) and then underlining the key information as you did. Then exactly as you did it, write down the maths to be done, do the maths and then tick off the parts of the question answered afterwards.”

The one-to-one teacher observed a definite increase in confidence but highlighted the fact that the strategies are a tool. Without a fundamental knowledge of the core concepts the question is still insurmountable.

“It seems that when the students are focussing on the key information, they are more able to break it down into manageable steps rather than if they just take the question as a whole. Using this method appears to give them more confidence as, to them, they’re making the question easier in a way. Although some students can underline the key information, it still doesn’t help them as their conceptual knowledge is weak e.g., adding side lengths to find area. As long as they have a sufficient understanding of how to ‘do the maths’ then using this method seems to help answer longer and more confusing worded questions.”

The project was a success because those taking part were able to be sensitive to learner voice and there was a real emphasis on digging deep to discover what the learners needed rather than having a pre-conceived recipe for success.

Our aim was to discover where the barriers were in answering Functional Skills maths questions and to develop strategies to overcome those barriers. We have not only found ways of doing this but have also given the learners increased confidence and resilience when tackling Functional Skills questions.