École élémentaire catholique Saint-Noël-Chabanel is looking at literacy strategies to help students tackle word problems. Photo by Avava/iStockphoto.com

Toronto school sees jump in math grades through unique strategy

  • August 20, 2016

TORONTO – Strategies to improve reading skills are helping students at a Toronto French Catholic school improve their math skills.

“To do well in mathematics the kids need to be able to understand the problem we’re asking them to do,” said Gina Kozak, principal of École élémentaire catholique Saint-Noël-Chabanel. “There is a piece of memorization in math so that we can become efficient ... but there is a whole literacy piece as well.”

That literacy piece comes in with the introduction of word problems that require students to extrapolate a math equation by reading a sentence or more.

One challenge with word problems is that sometimes words can be ambiguous by having multiple meanings, such as the term bi-monthly which can be taken as twice a month or every other month.

Leaning on literacy strategies, one teacher created with his students a lexicon of words with double or triple meanings along with an explanation.

Not only do students have to be able to understand the question, they also have to be able to effectively explain how to solve it.

“It is not just the solution but the process too,” said Kozak. “(But) if there is no coherency or clarity in what you are doing then you can’t understand your process. So we really worked on clarity.”

To do that one teacher had students prepare and deliver presentations — an assignment not typically associated with math class — which involved not only explaining how the student solved an equation to the class but also justifying the method used.

“We want to get the students motivated about math ... (and) literacy-based strategies were really, really effective,” said Kozak.

So effective that they caught the eye of the Education Quality and Accountability Office (EQAO), which profiled five schools, including Saint-Noël-Chabanel, “for their success in developing mathematics programs that have helped their students meet the provincial average” in its annual school success stories release at the end of the 2015-16 school year.

“These schools are determined to help all of their students succeed,” said Bruce Rodrigues, CEO of EQAO, “and the information provided by EQAO is one of the important sources of evidence that these schools are using to help them meet that goal.”

According to EQAO data, which comes from Ontario’s standardized testing of students in Grades 3, 6 and 9, Saint-Noël-Chabanel’s literacy strategies in math class are, as Kozak said, really effective.

In 2013, the same year Kozak became principal, 30 per cent of students who did not meet the provincial math standard in Grade 3 were able to meet it in Grade 6. Since implementing the literacy strategies in mathematics, that figure rose significantly with 43 per cent of those who failed to meet the standard in Grade 3 attaining the Grade 6 benchmark in 2015.

“The opposite was true province-wide where there is a decline in mathematics results in Grade 6,” said Kozak.

“Mathematics is about engagement. Get them reading and making links to everyday learning.”

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