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Curriculum & Leadership Journal
An electronic journal for leaders in education
ISSN: 1448-0743
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Teaching concepts of chance to early years ESL students

Olivia Clarke
Louise Bowe

Dr Olivia Clarke works in the Teacher Services section of The Le@rning Federation and is a former Program Implementation Advisor for the TLF. Louise Bowe is Senior Project Officer, eLearning Unit, Department of Education and Early Childhood Development, Victoria.

Helping young students to understand the mathematical concepts and language relating to chance can be challenging for some teachers. This article reports on the authors’ interview with Catherine Whiting and Jodie Parnis, Grade 1–2 teachers at Debney Meadows Primary School in Victoria, who introduced these concepts to their students, most of whom were newly arrived students to Australia, and all with English as their second language.

Integral to the learning tasks were The Le@rning Federation (TLF) learning objects: ‘Slushy Sludger’ and ‘Vile Vendor’. This work was done in late 2005 as part of a joint project  between the Department of Education and Early Childhood Development, then the Department of Education and Training Victoria, and The Le@rning Federation (TLF), exploring the use of TLF Mathematics and Numeracy content with ESL students

The students

In the two classes, each with 25 students, all but two were newly arrived ESL students from Somalia or Sudan, with the others from Vietnam and China. Between them the children covered all stages of English language learning. Generally from refugee families, some of these students had never handled a book or pencil before arrival at their Australian schools. Some had arrived suffering trauma from their experiences as refugees. Certainly none of these students had prior access to computers before arrival. Most of the students now live in public housing blocks near to the schools and do not have computers at home. Managing the learning needs of ESL students always presents a range of challenges to teachers. These challenges are magnified when students have disrupted, little or no experience of schooling.

Teaching and learning activities

In the project workshop exploring the use of TLF Literacy and Numeracy content suitable for ESL students Catherine and Jodie readily identified that the learning objects Slushy Sludger and Vile Vendor would suit their needs for teaching Chance. Slushy Sludger for Years 2–4 Mathematics, and Vile Vendor for Years 4–6 Mathematics both help students understand the concepts and language of probability in game-like contexts. Feedback on success in tasks is provided in multimodal ways: visual, textual and with sound effects. Guided support helps if incorrect responses are given. Although both Slushy Sludger and Vile Vendor were designed for higher year levels, the teachers believed that their game-like format, the voice-over auditory support, the visual representation of the concepts and the immediate feedback, would make them very suitable for teaching the language and concepts of chance with their ESL students. Used alongside a range of off-line activities, they believed the learning objects would be a real asset to student learning.

Once satisfied that the students had acquired the language and basic understanding of likelihood through hands-on activities and class discussion, the students were then able to tackle the learning objects. At Debney Meadows, the grades shared a bank of six computers adjacent to the two classrooms and had timetabled access to the computers in a laboratory. Digital projection was also available. Catherine and Jodie introduced their classes as a whole to how the objects worked using the digital projection in the computer lab before allowing the students to tackle the objects individually.

Jodie and Catherine commented on the student use of the objects:

' the first one we did, which was the Slushy Sludger, straightaway they just loved the voices on there, they loved watching what happened, the colours; they were just so excited, and they were running around, saying exactly what came off the Sludgy sludger … And then they would use the same language within the learning objects within the classroom; for example, in my class when someone says something right they all cheer which is a part of the Slushy sludger. 

'So not only are they using the learning object, language is being transferred back into the classroom in other situations. Particularly with ESL, that oral development is so important. Now they're transferring the oral components and using it in their writing in quite complex ways’.

Catherine commented that some of her students must have repeated the objects up to 30 times – for enjoyment, to hear the spoken language again and again, and to revisit the information to accurately complete accompanying worksheets. Repetition of the information and concepts in both oral and print form was of considerable help in advancing literacy and mathematical understanding.

The accompanying worksheets, to support the conceptual understanding covered in the learning objects, were also an important part of the learning tasks set by the two teachers.

On the value of the learning objects, Catherine states: ‘For maths chance and data we would not have been able to get them to the point where they're at without the learning objects.’ Indeed, she said that the students’ understanding of chance had surpassed that of the school’s Grade 5–6 children. She adds:

‘For the students I teach, learning objects were the perfect package because everything in it relates to the curriculum; they have animation, automatic positive feedback; auditory support and create high levels of engagement’.

High levels of motivation, increased conceptual understanding, improved oral and writing skills and improved self-confidence were features of the classrooms where the digital content was used. The outcomes surprised even the teachers involved. The learning objects also gave teachers opportunities to extend their pedagogical repertoire, including provision of learning tasks that effectively catered for the mixed abilities of their ESL students.

The Le@rning Federation, an initiative of the Australian, State and Territory governments and the New Zealand Government, has been developing interactive multimedia curriculum content in targeted learning areas including Mathematics, Science, Literacy and Studies of Australia. The digital content is freely available to education jurisdictions and sectors, who then distribute it for use in their schools. For further information on the TLF visit the website www.thelearningfederation.edu.au. Catalogues describing all available learning objects – for Mathematics and the other curriculum areas – can be downloaded from the website.

Key Learning Areas


Subject Headings

Mathematics teaching
Primary education
Information and Communications Technology (ICT)