Curriculum approaches to improve engagement in GCSE Mathematics

South Essex College

How many times have maths teachers identified that the low literacy levels of their students prevents them from being able to understand the questions and ‘do’ the maths? This action research project adopted an ’umbrella‘ approach which involved 5 GCSE English teachers and 5 GCSE Maths teachers to work together in pairs in response to the overarching theme of the project. It was designed to improve GCSE maths outcomes for learners, by exploring how to expand English skills within the maths curriculum. The focus was on creating a culture of collaboration and evaluation among students and staff; as part of the impact on the students, with the objective that this would remove barriers to learning and help develop resilience and confidence.

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South Essex College of Further and Higher Education is a large general further education college with approximately 16,000 full time equivalent students. It consists of 5 campuses across the South Essex Region. There are currently over 3400 learners enrolled onto GCSE Maths and English.

The objective of the project was to increase GCSE maths attainment, by developing English skills, particularly around problem-solving questions, which require reading and comprehension of language. The rationale for the project is based upon evidence from assessments and observations, highlighting that our students struggle with longer questions, particularly where there is a lot of complicated text or several steps. Learners who are re-sitting Maths are in most cases also taking English. Learners may know the math calculations; however, they struggle to identify what they are being asked to do.


The demands of mathematical English are higher than those of everyday English and students need to develop the necessary proficiency. We have seen an increase in worded problem-solving questions. The aim was to create a culture where tutors developed small activities that developed English skills in maths: short starters, or plenaries or considering different approaches to delivery that are not always observed in maths – for example, discussions and group work. Alongside developing English to support understanding of maths questions, the rationale was that these small curriculum changes would help students start to build resilience particularly around the fear of getting a question wrong.

The focus of the projects was to develop a community in the classroom where collaboration and problem-solving are encouraged. It was felt that this would lead to better attendance, particularly if the environment was found to be more inclusive and engaging. We wanted maths and English teachers to learn from each other’s practice and develop a community of evaluation and collaboration, building a culture of sharing common findings and challenges through evaluation of their teaching and learning and using the outcomes from learner voice to find different activities. In the long term, we want the experiences of the team involved in the project to change the culture of maths lessons and become a driver for change, impact and skills to embedded into the implementation of curriculum delivery.


We sought expressions of interest at the start of the project to ensure that all participant teachers were committed to our goal. We were fortunate to have a good balance of English and Maths tutors across the campuses come forward which enabled the approach of partnerships to be formed and individual projects to be undertaken in response to the overall theme. These were as follows:

  • Giving meaning of key words to our learners when answering worded exam style questions.
  • Building the maths vocabulary of the students by discussing the meaning of key words and linking? to how the topic is used in their course/real life
  • Creating a bank of words which will be displayed in the classroom and used in future lessons.
  • Employing Reciprocal Teaching techniques in maths lessons and? Guided Reading techniques to strengthen foundational reading skills
  • Creating a visual word wall in the classroom using maths terminology and imagery created by the students which would be a focus throughout the year and built upon.

The intention was for maths tutors to research their own teaching and learning strategies, test out theories and gain feedback from their learners; then to adopt teaching and learning strategies that could be introduced within starters or plenaries.

Example of a resource created to use everyday Maths terminology linked to vocational subjects

Example of a resource created to use everyday Maths terminology linked to vocational subjects

The aim was to develop one or two strategies during the project period, and the encouragement of peer collaboration. Activities could focus on vocabulary and technical terms being introduced to the class, chunking down questions and encouraging discussion in class to share and encourage dialogic teaching. Every week English terminology and vocabulary were encouraged in lessons alongside mathematical language; this naturally developed and was in response to learners’ and group needs.

The utilisation of English tutors to share practice and work with maths teachers on strategies particularly around reading, discussions, and vocabulary expansions was a successful strand. Partnerships were formed within the OTLA project group with a pair of Maths and English teachers working directly together. They held regular meetings and discussed the curriculum and teaching and learning. English teachers shared practice around the delivery and planning of their subject specialism and both practitioners looked at what aspects of delivery could be duplicated to embed skills further with learner. An example of this was where an English teacher highlighted maths terminology as it came up in English lessons – For example: greater, adjacent, opposite, descent. This shared practice led to a natural change in some maths teaching, with simple changes that had a strong impact. An example was more exploration of group and paired work in the classroom, to support discussions and problem solving in teams.

Feedback from learners helped teachers to evaluate and reflect critically on their own practice and its impact on learners and the learning experience. Tutors observed confidence building among learners and a classroom with shared expectations and collaborative learning led to a more inclusive environment where attendance improvements were observed alongside engagement in learning.

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

All teachers involved challenged themselves to try new approaches

  • Tutors have made simple changes e.g., displaying English vocabulary in the maths classroom, adopting an approach of underlining key terms and discussing the meaning of words
  • Students have been encouraged to deconstruct the long questions to determine what is being asked of them
  • Discussion has been included in lessons to encourage shared knowledge and deeper learning
  • There has been an increased awareness of the importance of vocabulary in maths and a realisation that changing the delivery approach can have a positive impact
  • Key words have been extracted from the maths questions which has enabled students to complete the questions more accurately and when approaching reciprocal reading there has been more focus on breaking down these key words and skills which has gradually improved learners grasp on long-worded maths questions.

Evidence of improved collaboration and changes in organisation practices

One of the main areas for exploration in the project was to encourage shared practice between Maths and English tutors. It was felt that English lessons naturally have more discussions, collaboration, and active learning taking place. The strongest part of the project was that we had enough interest early on to be able to establish partnerships of English and Maths tutors working together. This opportunity to work as a team and to collaborate with colleagues has provided a great opportunity to learn from each other’s practice and consequently self-review and self-evaluate.

One of the English teachers wrote in response to the project:

“As an English teacher supporting this project I found it very easy to embed some of the ideas and terminology that myself and my maths colleague introduced as part of our OTLA experiment. It didn’t take long to produce resources for a connect activity that included maths, and I found that this small contribution of maths in my English lesson really had an impact on the results.”

The campuses at South Essex are in a range of different socio-economic contexts which meant that the teachers involved in the project represented a range of students. Collaboration led to teachers having a greater insight into the variety of provision the college offers.

Some of the projects have further evolved to include collaboration with vocational specialists, for example, the involvement of motor vehicle teachers in sharing maths context and vocabulary in practical workshop lessons.

The project has grown to now include dissemination of the strategies applied across the department through CPD with the practitioners involved in the project sharing their findings and leading further research initiatives.

Further development is starting to be undertaken by looking at how further enhancements can be made to the maths curriculum to support learners with SEND who struggle with the complex content in written English in maths. Collaboration is currently being undertaken with the Additional Learning Support (ALS) team around further research and training around SEND and neurodiversity linked to the project.

Evidence of improvement in learners’ achievements, retention and progression

Across all projects, tutors tracked the progress of two learners and evaluated the distance

Example of terminology domino resource

Example of terminology domino resource

that they made in relation to progress and attendance. An example of success was progress in mock scores which was partly attributed to confidence. All tutors saw an increase in engagement for the groups involved in the projects.

They all noted a developing trend of growing confidence and engagement in maths as students overcome barriers with English. One student has been able to now feel confident to ask questions because the tutor has enabled him to break down the barriers around reading and not understanding, by exploring this far more in lessons. Students struggling with English can now attempt some worded questions. The students developed the practice read questions twice and underline key facts before answering. Before the intervention, they just answered worded questions by applying any mathematical operation without any reason.

In response to the evidence of improvement seen one maths tutor wrote:

“I have realised that it’s not all about ‘hammering’ on mathematical terms but to introduce and discuss terms as they are used in daily life and in the students’ main Vocational Course”

All tutors involved in the project noted that learners appeared better equipped for questions and understanding problem-solving in maths through the application of being taught better reading projects – particularly evident in the reciprocal teaching project. This is captured in some of the strategies that have been developed including the Teams Quiz template to support Reciprocal reading utilised as part of Group 4 (Appendix 2).

Learners have also adopted new skills starting to automatically develop the approach of underlining key words to questions they did not understand and finding out the meaning instead of simply ignoring the question or giving up and this is leading to a noticeable improvement in their confidence. (Appendix 3)

The processes being developed also encouraged students to naturally identify gaps within their own learning and the extraction of key words from questions enabled learners to make better noticeable progress as they were observed answering the questions more accurately.

Learning from this project

Although the project approach was to have umbrella groups, everyone responded to the objective and all involved demonstrated an increase in development of ‘familiarisation of

Image of a resource created to expose learners to key vocuabularly and terminlogy in mathematics

Resource created showing key vocuabularly and terminlogy in mathematics

terminology’. This success led to the idea that we can continue to produce collectively designed resources. Posters and resources have been displayed around the campuses to expose learners to key vocuabularly and terminlogy in mathematics. For example a motorbike labelled with the shapes used in mathematics that can be visually displayed in the Motor Vehicle workshops.

The engagement and positivity of teachers in the project was apparent and it is felt this is because they had been selected to take part and they have been positive with concern to engagement. It is easy to see how we can evolve and move the project forward by sharing good practice. The effective teamwork and collaboration between English and maths practitioners learning from each other has been a particular strength. This has enabled some evaluation of practice and maths teachers starting to adopt approaches observed more within English lessons like discussion work and group-based activities. A wealth of practice has been developed through the research being undertaken by practitioners with different subject specialisms.

There has been a common conclusion that small, simple changes to practice can be pivotal in engagement of learners. This has been a strength of the project. Tutors developed a strong awareness that they were breaking down barriers to learning by establishing an understanding that the poor confidence from learners was linked to a lack of English skills not necessarily maths.

The reflective and evaluative teaching methods undertaken have meant that the project has taken different directions with more resources and ideas being developed given further scope for more progression of the project.

The unforeseen circumstances of this academic year and the global pandemic Covid-19 meant that we have been able to be adaptable with our approach to the project. Tutors have been able to develop strategies and resources that work both in the classroom and online for remote learning. There is further scope to take the project in the direction of online learning development to support and underpin face-face delivery.

We intend to disseminate the project within the organisation and work collaboratively with other providers. Throughout the project, considerable interest from other providers has been evident and we are in the process of exploring ideas around reciprocal reading to help support our SEND learners and promote further inclusivity.

There are opportunities for collaboration with the vocational departments; this was a strand of development starting to emerge from one of the groups who had started to adopt this approach with the engineering and construction department.