Assessment for Learning

Westminster Adult Education Service

This project actively engaged ESOL learners to stimulate intrinsic motivation so that they were able to understand and realise the relevance of maths in an applied sense, thereby enabling them to overcome some of the challenges studying the subject can pose.

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


Learners studying Entry maths often come with an ESOL background; the language of assessment can be a challenge. How can we best support them with the language of maths assessments? This project aimed to create meaningful, contextualised resources.

We have a significant proportion of ESOL learners from the deprived communities in Westminster who attend our functional skills maths courses. Working with the maths and learning support team, which included classroom practitioners and learning support staff, we set out to improve outcomes for learners by giving them opportunities for meaningful contextualised problem-solving activities.


Figure 1: Building confidence

Figure 1: Building confidence

Progression from ESOL courses onto functional skills maths at entry level is a challenge for our learners, due to the language demands required to access the content. For the majority of our ESOL learners their mental maths skills are good, but when presented with worded questions they are unable to comprehend what the questions are requiring them to do (we have significant anecdotal evidence by teaching staff to support such findings).

Maths questions are often set in contextualised scenarios that are unfamiliar or have little relevance to the everyday experience of learners. This lack of contextualised materials available can put ESOL learners at a further disadvantage.

To address this gap in understanding, we developed maths resources specifically aimed at ESOL learners – allowing them to apply their mathematical knowledge to problem solving scenarios that are familiar. In turn, we aimed to develop their mathematical understanding to make these skills transferable when working towards an accredited functional skills qualification.

Contextualising materials and supporting learners with the language of maths makes the content matter more accessible and thereby improves outcomes for learners when taking controlled (summative) assessments.

Figure 1 illustrates our rationale to building confidence in maths.


Our team took the following approach:

  • Identify language background of learners (see Appendix 1). In one class, out of 11 students, there were 9 different first languages spoken.
  • Analyse exam questions – pick out key language (see target language column of Appendix 3). For example: ‘to the nearest division’, ‘left over’ and ‘packs’. A resource was specifically created around home improvement language, such as: ‘hooks’, ‘base’, ‘bracket’, ‘shelf’, ‘corner’.
  • Create contextualised questions. One team member had allocated hours and responsibility for this. Appendix 3 shows a table outlining our new resources that were created at entry 2 and 3.
  • Trial questions in class. In both semesters 1 and 2, there were two classes of Functional Skills maths at Entry level, this included Entry 1 to Entry 3.
  • Learners complete an evaluation following the completion of the activity. This had a 5-star rating, a question about vocabulary (did you learn new words today?) and ‘would you like more practice with the topic of…? – Yes/no’.
  • Direct learners to additional workshops, such as the Friday entry support one hour session.
  • Liaise with the learning support workshop tutor (suggest topics, target language and in some cases, provide materials to repeat)
  • Meet regularly to discuss how using the materials went and agree next steps or modifications of materials.
  • Monitor achievement (progress tests, mock controlled assessments, end of course controlled assessments)
  • Progress learners to the next level of maths.

The journey showing the creation of resources can be seen in Figure 2.

Figures 3 and 4, show examples of contextualised resources that were created as part of the project.

Overall, we created and trialled 11 Entry 2 and 3 resources.

Figure 2: Cycle of creating resources.

Figure 3: Activity D (Number)

Figure 4: Compass NSEW

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

Alewia’s evaluation of an activity and how she was able to distinguish her different learning needs within the topic.

Figure 5: Learner feedback.

According to Chinn (2004), “the main difficulties and confusions in the words of maths come from aspects involving vocabulary and then in the interpretation and comprehension of the language used to write mathematics word problems.” In light of this it is important to examine the models of delivery in adult education when looking at ways to include more learner led methods in delivery to improve conceptual understanding and identify gaps in prior knowledge. Focusing in on the language of maths and problem-solving techniques works towards that goal.

We also considered which Professional Standards related to the key points of our project, such as ‘Evaluate your practice with others and assess its impact on learning’. This was captured at each stage of resource design (see figure 2) and resulted in modifications in light of the feedback. Crucial to this, we included a mini learner evaluation at the end of the worksheets which encouraged learners to reflect on how helpful the activity had been, new vocabulary as well as an opportunity to request further practice on the topic at hand.

Figure 5 shows Alewia’s evaluation of an activity and how she was able to distinguish her different learning needs within the topic.

Procedural fluency and conceptual understanding were developed by adapting the content of questions, whilst keeping the design the same. This encouraged allowed learners to repeat the same pattern of steps to solve problems and thereby not overwhelming working memory.
Due to the third lockdown, lessons went online, however this allowed us to continue to gain rich feedback from learners by using an adapted evaluation using MS Forms, see appendix 4.

Evidence of improved collaboration and changes in organisation practices

There were three significant changes in practice within our organisation as a result of this project. At the start we consulted ESOL tutors to discuss language in our assessments that could prove a challenge and this was an ongoing dialogue, feeding back to the ESOL team about our moments of discovery. Moving forward, we plan to continue communication with the ESOL team about the additional embedding of maths language.

The project team worked with the learning support team to organise workshops for learners on the OTLA 7 project. The support staff delivering these workshops were provided with recommended topics and references to specific language. Project resources were shared with the support staff to enable the repeating of some of the activities. The learning support tutor reported that learners had found it helpful to repeat activities.

Tracking the language background of learners became more detailed as a result of the project: in Semester 1 the tutor produced a table, listing first language only (see Appendix 1). In Semester 2, the project team devised a profile for learners to complete. This form will be used on future courses and could be adapted digitally in MS Forms. Recording the language background in more detail enables tutors to more easily identify learners who may require more support with language.

Evidence of improvement in learners’ achievements, retention and progression

In semester 1, all learners who were involved in OTLA 7 and of an ESOL background achieved at the qualification aim they were enrolled on and progressed to the next level, Semester 2 learners (in progress) to date have completed two assessments: an Entry 2 Practice Test – Appendix 5 (produced by the project team) and an Entry 2 Practice Paper (produced by Pearson).

In Semester 2, the Entry 2 practice test results for ESOL background learners were promising – with a pass mark of 17/24 (68%) – there were 11 passes, 4 fails and 2 absences. (See Appendix 2: Practice Test Results).

This practice test also showed that several learners understood certain language, such as ‘the least’ but in a later question got confused with ‘at least’. See

‘Learner B work confusion with at least’.

Learners learnt real life skills, such as counting with time and using points of a compass for direction.

Learner C: I never thought about points of the compass before I completed the activity, now when I go about my business, I understand my direction.

Learner D: “I found the compass activity hard, I don’t use if in my everyday life, I use my phone for sat nav and follow the arrows when travelling, using the points of compass is interesting and I have learned new skills”

Learner E: “The worksheets were very good as was written like exam paper, but the example use was local areas, which I know as I walk there sometimes, so I check my answer is right, by thinking in my head as if I walk there. I find difficult some questions around problem solving and find difficult topic division….”

Learner F: “I learn new word that I don’t really use in my life, like capacity which is total amount that can fit”

Learner G: “I find time question a bit difficult as only use mobile phone to check time and do not do counting with time”

The Learning support tutor reported that one learner requested to go through the bus drivers’ activity again and commented that she now understood what a diesel gauge and fuel tank was. This will give her more confidence with using language in a forthcoming assessment.

Learning from this project

Contextualisation of resources
Contextualising was an effective approach, with materials including London bus journeys, a map of familiar places (compass activity – see Appendix) and shopping for familiar items. This encouraged learners to make better connections and overcome challenges to unfamiliar settings.

Adaptable resources
The team developed a bank of contextualised materials which can continue to be used, developed and adapted in different digital formats. Having the materials in an editable file also means that the text and diagrams can be re-sized if learners need a larger or bolder font.

Analysis of learner answers
Tutor reflection and feedback to the materials writer was useful as it showed what language was being understood by learners and which questions were still causing difficulty. In the May Practice Test, the tutor suggested improvements to questions 8 and 9: “it needs increments of 10, not 20ml” (see appendix 2.) In terms of language, there was some confusion between ‘the least’ (q3) and ‘at least’ (q7). This needs to be further explained in class, with additional questions.

Analysis of evaluations
Giving learners three evaluation questions after each activity encouraged learners to reflect on what they had learned, note new language and say if they would like more practice with the topic. This would be even better if the learners always wrote down the new words they learnt. It was more efficient for collating the feedback when this was done as an online task using MS Forms. Tutors can prompt for more in depth or extension answers and in MS Forms you can build in a second question after a particular answer.

Repeating activities
Having repeated tasks helped learners to further practice and consolidate their learning. Some questions, such as those featuring two bus drivers gave an opportunity for the learners to practice a similar problem again with different numbers. The Learning Support Tutor commented that learners were ‘very appreciative of going through the same questions again’ in a support session and she felt that it ‘built up their confidence’. This could have been improved if more of the resources had differentiated questions available at Entry 2 and Entry 3, which helped them consolidate their knowledge by doing the level below their operating level.

Reflective quotes from staff:

“I gained confidence in creating differentiated resources and want to continue doing this.”

“The OTLA7 project has meant that we now have a shared folder of topic-based exam style questions. These questions have been useful revision for all of our learners.”

“The resources helped learners become more confident – they were using the target language whilst problem solving.”


Nunes, T., Schliemann, A. D., Carraher, D. W. (1993). Street Mathematics and School Mathematics. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Steve Chinn. (2004) The Trouble with Maths. Routledge.