Teaching Low-Ability Students

“Maths is fun when you are learning!” Fatima (one of my bottom-set students)

If you are anything like me, you would never raise your hand excitedly to teach a group of bottom set students / low-ability students! In fact, if it was a matter of choice in a department meeting, this would be your cue to go to the toilet or grab a cuppa coffee or better yet, slide as far down in your chair as possible just to hide! (At this moment in writing this, I am hoping that my principal is totally unaware that I have a blog or that she never sees this post! shhh)

Seriously, does any of this sounds vaguely familar….? or am I in the naughty corner all by myself?

Ok. I hear you agree with me quietly. That’s ok.
The description above WAS me, until recently. You see, I had the privilege of sitting in a colleague’s lesson once per week for a term and not only was I captivated by her calm demeanour and her assertiveness but I was totally amazed at just how well her set 7 students were working (we had 8 sets)! The atmosphere in the room was so positive, vibrant too, but very purposeful! There was a level of yearning and aspiration that transcend the room and vibrated through me! It was beautiful and I loved it so much that I would frequently tell other teachers about it.

  “Good artists copy and great artists steal.” Picasso

I kept wondering how this teacher, newly qualified at the time, did it. I commended her but, as you probably know already I followed Picasso’s advice and stole her strategies. I now have a set 7 class and I absolutely love love teaching them! It’s unbelievable I tell you! They work very hard in lessons, at least 90% always complete homework to a very high standard and they seem to prefer to stay in lessons to do more MATHS rather than go for lunch! I am still in a state of disbelief! Furthermore, even the students seem to also be in shock as they often make some weird but interesting comments each week in lessons, for example, last week while learning Trig one student said out loud ‘miss this is FUN!’ and in agreement her classmates said ‘ain’t it!’ and ‘yea!’ (just to point out that we were simply working some problems, some which were quick wins as well as some challenging ones, but obviously they were enjoying the thinking process)

Anyway, in a casual conversation with Nazanin about teaching low ability students I said to her ‘you must share your strategies because I have benefitted so much from watching you’. Surprisingly or not, on the spur of the moment I said ‘how about I put some questions together and you see how best you can put your magic into words and I will share it with readers on my blog!’ with my mouth wide open (ta- dah, light bulb moment) and fingers and legs crossed hoping she will say yes. And yes it was, without hesitation.

so, grab a cup of tea or your favourite drink and read on…..

Without further ado, here are some details of how Nazanin manages to be a Super teacher at raising the aspirations, expectations and attainment of so-called low-ability students! 

How do you normally approach or get ready for each lesson with a low ability class?

From the first lesson that I had with them I shared with them a plan that I had drawn out for their revision during our weeks to come. They were given a list of revision topics that was taken from mathsgenie (https://www.mathsgenie.co.uk/gcse.html) for getting grades 3, 4 and 5 and had to stick that to their books so they also were aware that there was a structure and there was a goal to attain. After covering each topic students were then given topic-specific papers for a mock test in the  class. This would not only ensure that they familiarised themselves with each topic but was interesting to see how it affected their self confidence and interest when they could answer real GCSE questions and score high grades. Further more I tend to pick topics from across the grades rather than finishing one grade and moving to next. For instance topics are taken from grade 4 followed by grade 5 and then grade 3. I believe that by concentrating on just grade 3 you are already programming them to expect low whereas by showing them that topics under grade 5 is what I expect you to learn and later what you scored 70% in the topic paper raises their self- confidence and reassures them that the grade 5 topics are not unachievable.

The mentality is to enforce that I as your teacher can see in you that you can do it and expect you to do well. Then prove it to them by letting them excel in a particular topic by scoring high in their topic- test.

Every lesson has already been planned to make sure a specific topic is well covered from basics to the level of sitting a topic test with confidence. The relationship between topics across the grade boundaries is also emphasised (e.g. Substitution in algebra, in linear graphs and quadratic graphs).  

Do you normally have to go to these lessons with a ‘bank’ of plans for various methods of scaffolding? How different is your instructional plan for a low ability group compared to a mixed or a more abled group? 

I believe that the use of various methods in low ability students is often confusing and they are better at taking in just one (or may be two) simplified,  easily understandable solid method that can be retained by the mind is what I have seen to have a better outcome. So I enjoy it when I hear remarks like: Is that it?, Oh but that’s so easy now! 

How do you know when students learn what was intended? 

During the lesson questions of various strengths are given and they are encouraged to answer them and even compete for time and correctness by giving them recognition. When the topic is finished they are then given a topic-specific paper from maths genie to do and by scoring high they are encouraged and their self confidence is boosted.

If another teacher was to observe you with this group, what would they be seeing in a normal lesson with your bottom set students? 

Engagement of students and their interest in learning as well as self confidence and the sense of being valued.

How do you get the students productively engaged? How do you know when this is being achieved at the desired level? 

Cold calling, rewards and competition as well as group work. 

What is your advice to teachers who are struggling to see progress with their bottom set students or to teachers who are demotivated by or with these classes. 

Start with teaching topics that would be easily understood and follow it by giving real GCSE questions so that the students build self-confidence and a personal reputation in your eyes as their teacher. Show them that you expect no less from them than those in other groups and hence the choice of topics the choice of doing real exam questions Once they truly believe that you believe in them and therefore expect them to achieve, they would not only gain the confidence but also try best to keep up with your  standards. That is when you know that they are themselves eager to learn and score high and subsequently aim high in their lives.

I really hope you did get to the end of this post and as always, as I aim to better my best in this area, I look forward to learning from you on how you raise the attainment of students who are considered as low-ability.



Published by lotoyalpt

Passionate, driven and called to be a teacher. My name is Lotoya Patrick-Taylor, a sister, a wife, a mom, a friend and a teacher. I was trained to be a teacher in Jamaica, where I received my Teaching Diploma in Mathematics at Church Teachers' College and my BA in Mathematics from Southern New Hampshire University (Hons) in the U.S.A. I have been teaching high school mathematics for just over eight years. Taught for four years in Jamaica, worked as a mathematics coach and delivered workshops to various maths department. I am currently in my fourth year in the United Kingdom, where I am the Lead teacher of Maths at my school. In addition to being a classroom teacher in the U.K, I am a maths coach and I also deliver training sessions at my school and to a network of schools. Roles I thoroughly enjoy - I love people and I love collaborating, sharing and learning (hence, the reason I decided to start this blog).

6 thoughts on “Teaching Low-Ability Students

  1. I really enjoyed reading that 🙂
    I felt you were describing me in the first paragraph but as I continued reading I feel empowered to help my bottom sets out; to give them the confidence and the skills to do well in maths (I hope!)

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Haha! (I am laughing / or crying with you). I am happy that I am not the only one who felt like that. Thanks for sharing Zainab. Do let us know how it is working for you in the near future.


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