# Back to hard sums and commas

School term started a few weeks ago here in the UK. This weekend saw thousands of new students (including my nephew) head off for university which means Cardiff, where there are two universities and a further education college, is best avoided for a little while. I made a mistake last year and ended up in the city during Fresher’s Week – the pavements were congested with gangs of students (why do all newbies go around in large groups) and the roads full of these odd-looking vehicles where people sat at a bar drinking beer while cycling. A dangerous combination surely? The most amusing aspect was to encounter the people handing out leaflets for parties and bars – I clearly wasn’t in the right age profile for such festivities but they didn’t want to offend me so kept foistering all this stuff on me. I kept all the coffee shop vouchers and 2 for 1 cocktails but ditched the ones for the burger chains along with the free condoms.

Not to be outdone I had my own back-to-school event this week. Not as a student but as a volunteer for an adult literacy and numeracy programme being run in my village. Literacy is something I’ve always been passionate about, even more so after I met the woman who started the Plain English Campaign in the UK. Chrissie Maher didn’t learn to read until she was in her mid teens. Many years later, frustrated by the complexity of a lot of government forms, she set up a project in Salford, UK to help people in the same position. In 1979 she took on the government by burning piles of their forms in front of the Houses of Parliament, an act which brought her to the attention of a government minister called Margaret Thatcher. The Plain English Campaign was born as a result.

I’m not in the same league as Chrissie Maher but I know there are many adults who struggle with writing and arithmetic because they missed out a lot of formal education. The Essential Skills programme is giving them a second chance. A few of the people in our programme are mothers who want to become youth workers but can’t start training until they can prove they have basic literacy and numeracy skills. We also have some young people who can’t start college because they don’t have the required qualifications. Even though we’ve only had a few sessions together I’m impressed by how determined all these people are – it takes a lot of courage to say ‘I need help.’

It’s been an eye-opening experience for me because it’s meant digging into the grey cells to remember concepts I first learned 40 or 50 years ago. I’ve worked with words for all of my career so I think I know a thing or two about punctuation and sentence construction but explaining it, now that’s a different thing. Faced this week with the question: what are the two situations in which you use a comma, my mind went blank. I know it instinctively but that’s not much use to students faced with the conundrum of when to use it’s rather than its or whose instead of who’s.

The picture with arithmetic is even worse. I’ve thought for many years that there are words people and numbers people. I belong firmly to the first. Show me a piece of text and I can summarise, analyse, edit or proof read it easily and quickly. Show me a set of numbers or a chart and I’ll be able to make some sense of it – eventually. It made work rather challenging often when I’d be sat with one of our business boards reviewing last quarter’s performance for example and everyone else would quickly home in on what was working well/ what was heading for a fall etc. Me, I’d still be working it out long after they’d passed to the next topic.

Addition, multiplication , subtraction, division I can do in my head (the product of working in my parent’s shop every Saturday without the benefit of a calculator or fancy cash till). But I’ve forgotten everything I ever learned about multiplication of fractions, how to solve an equation or calculate the area of a circle. I knew it once (I have the certificate to prove it) but it’s long disappeared down memory lane. As for those stupid questions about calculating how long a bath fills if the tap runs at x gallons a minute and the plug hole empties at y gallons a minute, I never did figure how out to solve those puzles. I couldn’t ever see the point really. Nor did I see the purpose in calculating the point at which two trains would pass if they were travelling in opposite directions at different speeds. I mean, how many times in the last five years have you been called upon to know how to do this?

But these are still questions that our students might encounter so I thought I’d better refresh the old memory. Part of my summer has therefore been spent re-learning how to multiply and divide fractions and decimals (this has generated much heated debate with Mr Booker Talk who takes a completely different route to get to the answers) and work out percentages. As you can tell from the title of these two books I’ve gone right back to the beginning. It’s going to get harder from here on though – next step is my old favourite of algebra. But I need a glass of wine to help me with that I suspect.

Good for you, this is wonderful! So proud of you

Wonderful and brave of you to volunteer! It is shockingly hard to try to teach something you know so deeply. Tutoring maths? I bow to you!

I’ve discovered significant changes in the ways of doing basic arithmetic calculations since I was taught. I don’t understand the way they do subtraction now for example which makes it a bit challenging

I’m pretty good at mental arithmetic, but when it comes to things with decimals and fractions, I have delve into my memory a bit harder and try to remember the principles, and then use my guestimation skills to work out whether the result I get makes sense! It’s hard work!

But, what you are doing is a great thing – and I’m sure you’ll get a lot out of it (besides becoming a maths whizz!)

I had to bite my lip today when we dealt with commas today and the guidance was to include one before conjunctions like and, but, so. All the examples given were sentences in which I would never have used a comma – didn’t need the punctuation IMHO

Commas are fascinating because some use them a lot, but the modern way I’ve noticed is not to. I notice my spelling grammar check wants to add more in than I’d use. I fall in the middle of current practice I think.

I got a book given to me today which is meant to help kids here prepare for their key exams at age 16 – and there was so much with the punctuation instructions with which I disagreed. But thats what they have to do to pass the exam

That would be tough to do I reckon, to teach what you don’t agree with!

Like you, I’ve spent quite a few years editing and proofing but I’d also be hard pressed to explain many of the rules not having been taught them. I learned my grammar from Latin! My academic partner tells me that students often arrive at his Russell Group university with lamentable writing skills.

Im not surprised about the situation your husband experiences. I did three years as an external examiner for a postgraduate course and the spelling was atrocious even with the aid of a spellchecker….

What a wonderful thing to do. I’m not very numerate, though I can do my own accounts etc., and I’ve had to re-learn grammar and still worry about having to explain to a client exactly why I have made a certain suggestion.

I remember those conversations with internal clients – usually about capitalisation. I favour minimal use and they were always insisting that job titles for example should have capitals.

My maths is not as good as it should be. I’m ok up to a certain level as I have to help teach the kids at school but I couldn’t pass an exam. I can just imagine how hard it is to ask for help, and well done to you for doing this. It’s such important work. Good luck.

I know where to come now when I need help then

Hot tip for maths problem-solving from a retired chalkie: draw it. Draw the bath and a bucket filling up at x gallons per minute and another bucket emptying at x gallons per minute and soon the learners will get sick of drawing it and *light bulb* say couldn’t we just ‘take away’ what’s in the two buckets and then ‘times’ it, miss?

the books I’m using do make good use of graphics to explain things like division but I haven’t got to the bucket part yet

I love the Plain English campaign. It has been a guiding light throughout my career as a journalist and sub-editor, and now in my new role doing copywriting and internal comms. Congrats on getting involved, and good luck with it.

Ive sent several people including senior executives on their courses and all found them extremely good. I also had a fantastic experience working with the campaign to get a crystal mark for some safety information materials.

If it’s any consolation I always found that the teaching students I supervised were much better at teaching primary maths if they had had problems themselves than if they hadn’t. I am basically a numbers person and I was hopeless at teaching maths because I simply couldn’t see where the difficulties were.

On another matter, I didn’t know you were another shop child. My parents ran your typical corner shop for over twenty years. It is quite a unique upbringing. We should swap stories.

I can see how detailed knowledge of a subject often makes it harder to explain because you simply don’t understand that anyone can have a problem with something that just makes so much sense to you.

On the shop front, my parents had a bakery and some shops so I worked in both. It taught me people skills as well as me twl arithmetic but my cake making leaves a lot to be desired.

Wow great work ethic. I’m the same as Didi.. maths and me we don’t get along, never have and never will 🙂

All I can say is my Math skills were/are terrible, and I’ve been ducking and diving ever since. Smh…

I can do English, but my Maths is just – awful. And I use accounting systems as I’m a finance person where I work! But the kind of problem you describe does my head in…. Good luck!

You work in finance but can’t do maths?? There’s no hope for me in that case….

Complicated maths – I can add up and use financial systems and stuff!!

I would probably feel more secure teaching maths than English as we weren’t formally taught the grammatical rules at school and so mine is all pretty much based on instinct.

I don’t remember doing any grammar lessons either. There must have been some but what I know has really been picked up over the years.

The ability to understand algebra is directly proportional to the amount of wine one has drunk—that’s the first rule of algebra.

I shall raise a glass in celebration of this wonderful example of common sense

What a great initiative Karen! I think I am going to have to brush up on my maths skills to do the twins homework with them 😀

That’s one of the points made in the books I have, how lots of parents suddenly find themselves trying to explain concepts to their children and realising they don’t understand them at all.