8 ways to deliver effective maths interventions
This is an updated version of a blog post originally published on September 25, 2019
If a child needs extra help with maths, how do you choose the right support? Here are a few general principles that you can apply to deliver more effective interventions.
Interventions are ways of giving extra support outside of your regular lesson. They’re for learners who are at risk of falling behind or learners who are not making sufficient progress.
Is there a one-size-fits-all solution to interventions?
Individualised, component-based approaches to maths intervention have been found to be highly effective. As no child is the same, implementing an intervention programme for maths can be very challenging as each learner has their own unique difficulties.
In 2010, Ofsted reviewed the intervention programmes available from the National Strategies for primary and secondary schools to use. The findings concluded that there wasn’t a single universally effective programme — success was determined by how well pupils were targeted, assessed, and monitored as well as how the overall programme was managed.
So, short answer is: unfortunately not. There’s no one-size-fits-all solution for delivering maths interventions. However, there are some general principles that you can apply to make your interventions more effective.
What are the features of successful interventions?
Last year, the Education Endowment Foundation (EEF) produced the report Improving Mathematics in Key Stages Two and Three.
One recommendation in the report was to use structured interventions to provide extra support. The EEF recommends that “selection of the intervention should be guided by effective assessment of pupils’ individual strengths and weaknesses”. But once you’ve assessed a child, how do you choose the right intervention? How do you know what will work?
At the moment, there isn’t a huge amount of information on the efficacy of intervention programmes (this is something the EEF is working on). In the meantime, they advise schools to implement interventions based on eight elements:
The 8 elements of effective maths interventions
1. Early intervention
Early interventions help pupils to catch-up and perform better across the curriculum. They also help with confidence and reduce maths anxiety. Early interventions are most valuable if you can find ways to build on the early gains interventions produce.
2. Use tried-and-tested strategies
Choose intervention strategies that are backed up by evidence.
For example, in her evidence-based practice review, Aimee Cole found that:
“Maths interventions provided by a trained professional, to a small group of ‘at risk’ children leads to improved maths knowledge and attainment.”
The EEF have produced a handy tool-kit that summarises the evidence, cost, and impact of implementing various teaching and learning strategies.
Examples of low cost, evidence-backed, high-impact strategies include:
- Mastery learning
- Metacognition and self-regulation
- Collaborative learning
Researching the efficacy of an intervention strategy can give you insight into whether a strategy will make a difference to your learners.
3. Use explicit and systematic teaching in your interventions
Interventions should include explicit and systematic teaching. Explicit instruction is absolutely necessary when teaching content that learners couldn’t discover for themselves or when discovery may be inaccurate, inadequate, incomplete, or inefficient.
Drawing on the Institute of Education Sciences (IES) practice guide, explicit teaching includes:
- Providing clear models for solving a problem type using an array of examples
- Giving pupils extensive practice in new strategies and skills
- Providing chances to think aloud and talk about their steps and decisions
- Providing students with extensive feedback
- Ensure that teaching materials include a cumulative review in each session
These practices significantly improve proficiency in word problem solving and operations.
4. Use staff strategically
Do you have higher level teaching assistants or maths specialist teaching staff? Interventions work best when they use school resources and staff strategically. Even the best programme won’t have any impact if staff are untrained or unavailable.
The EEF suggests taking a look at their guidance ‘Making Best Use of Teaching Assistants’. One of the key recommendations is that TAs should not be used as an informal teaching resource for low-attaining pupils. Instead, TAs working with low-attaining pupils should focus on retaining access to high-quality teaching, for example by delivering brief, but intensive, structured interventions.
5. Link to whole-class teaching
Maths interventions are often separate from classroom activities. It’s important for the learning within the intervention to merge with the main maths work inside a class. You can’t assume that children will make the connections between the learning by themselves.
6. Make intervention fun
Any intervention has to be something children will enjoy doing. The intervention needs to turn children on to maths, not turn them off. A regular feature of effective maths programmes is the use of maths games.
7. Balance interventions and classroom activities
Make sure to factor in what children might miss out on elsewhere. Pupils may resent the intervention if it takes them away from other subjects that they enjoy. It might well be the case that whole-class teaching is more suitable and effective.
With some ‘creative’ timetabling, interventions won’t impact other areas of the curriculum. Many schools hold interventions during assembly time and after school.
8. Use your time wisely
An intervention doesn’t have to take hours to be effective. Some interventions can deliver an impact in ten minutes a day on a one-to-one basis.
An intervention has to balance your pupils’ needs and your school’s context. With the right support, all pupils can achieve mastery and become confident mathematicians.
Enhancing primary mathematics teaching (2003) Edited by Ian Thompson. OUP: Berkshire.
What Works for Children with Mathematical Difficulties? The effectiveness of intervention schemes (2009) by Ann Dowker
Dowker, A. (forthcoming). Review of Mathematics Education Programmes. London: The Education Endowment Foundation.
Gersten, R., Beckmann, S., Clarke, B., Foegen, A., Marsh, L., Star, J. R., & Witzel, B. (2009). Assisting students struggling with mathematics: Response to Intervention (RtI) for elementary and middle schools (NCEE 2009-4060). Washington, DC: National Center for Education Evaluation and Regional Assistance, Institute of Education Sciences, U.S. Department of Education.
Watts TW, Clements DH, Sarama J, Wolfe CB, Spitler ME, Bailey DH. Does early mathematics intervention change the processing underlying children’s mathematics achievement? Journal of Research on Educational Effectiveness (2016)
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