Ideas for helping students tackle ‘wordy’ functional questions

Since the introduction of the ‘functional’ questions on the maths GCSE last year it has become important for pupils to improve the skill of taking a ‘wordy’ question and interpret what it is requiring them to do. Many pupils find this difficult and seem to give up before they have even read the question. Through a couple of strategies obtained from an excellent INSET I attended recently, I have had some success in getting pupils to improve their interpretation of functional questions. Surprisingly, these strategies were presented by our Head of English under the umbrella of a training session based on literacy, but I have found them to work well in the functional maths part of our subject.

Two colour highlighting

After reading the question once, get pupils to read it again twice more. On the second time they should highlight all the numbers in the question (both those in digits and in words). The third time they read it they should highlight in a different colour all the ‘key maths vocabulary’ words that are important to the context of the question. For example words like: more, each, difference, total, profit etc. Through reading three times, each with a different focus it seems many pupils improve their interpretation and understanding of the questions. It is a strategy for breaking down the process of interpreting a question into a series of smaller tasks.

Highlighting numbers in one colour and key maths vocabulary in another

Highlighting numbers in one colour and key maths vocabulary in another

Cartoon story boards

Another strategy that seems to work well with some pupils is to get them to create a ‘cartoon picture’ for each sentence of the question. For example, if the question begins ‘Sue buys 24 books for £2 each’ pupils could draw a picture of a book with a £2 sign on it and a ‘X 24′ beside it. They work through the question creating a cartoon picture for each sentence. They then look at the whole cartoon story board they have drawn and it is a pictorial representation of the problem. I have found that many pupils understand the question better looking at their story board, than looking at the text. I think this may be due to them creating a mental picture of the problem in their imagination, something that is essential for solving functional problems. Here is an example of a story board one of my pupils drew today for the above question and then their solution:

Cartoon story board for the 'Sue buys 24 books for £2 each' question

Cartoon story board for the ‘Sue buys 24 books for £2 each’ question

Cartoon story board of the above problem and then the student's solution

Cartoon story board of the above problem and then the student’s solution

Another cartoon story board and solution to a similar problem by a different pupil

Another cartoon story board and solution to a similar problem by a different pupil

Do you have any other strategies that you use when teaching pupils how to tackle functional questions? If so share them with us in the comments section!

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