Literacy strategies in Maths
Developing literacy is important in all subjects, but it can present a particular challenge in Maths. Often whole-school policies and approaches are unhelpful - for example, we don't do enough extended writing to make the most of marking codes for SPAG.
In their best-practice case study, Embedding literacy across the curriculum (2012), Ofsted clarify:
Our message is that individual subjects create different language demands, which need to be identified and addressed within those subjects.
So this is the real question: what are the language demands in maths, and how can we address them?
At every level, students need a broad vocabulary to access learning. As well as emphasising technical terms, we must also remember to explain Tier 2 words (such as 'maintain' or 'fortunate'), which may not be universally understood.
- Whenever a keyword is introduced, draw attention to it. Ask students to copy it down with a definition in their books and put a box around it for emphasis. Peers then check each others' spelling.
- Avoid simplifying vocabulary, even for students working at lower levels. Language is embedded through frequent use. For example, talk about the numerator and denominator of a fraction, rather than the top and bottom. From an exam point of view, students will run into difficulties if they're used to talking about the 'bow tie rule' of circle theorems and 'Z angles' in parallel lines.
- Be particularly aware of terms which have a different meaning in maths to their everyday use - called faux amis by Skemp (1972). For example: origin, axes, base, degree, odd, solution, table, term, division.
- Circle misspelt words when marking, and ask students to write down the correct spellings.
- Discuss command words regularly. For example, whenever a question starts with "Evaluate…", "Show that…" or "Write down…", nominate a learner to remind you what that means.
- Praise students when they ask for a word to be defined, to encourage openness in language enquiry.
- Task students with calling out definitions throughout the lesson, for example: "Every time I say 'relative frequency', I want you to say '…which means experimental probability'".
- 'Splat!' Project a jumble of keywords onto the board and invite two students to come up and play. When you read out a definition, the first person to put their hand on the right word wins. This can then be continued in groups of three, using a printed jumble of words.
- 'Taboo'. Produce a set of cards, each with a keyword at the top and then 2-4 related words underneath. In teams, students must take turns picking a card from the pack and trying to describe the top word without using it or any of the other words on the card. In a variation to this game for less confident learners, they must make a definition using all of the prescribed words.
There are many occasions in maths when students need to scan text to extract information. For example, when answering worded problems they begin by identifying the key facts and considering what the question is asking. Manipulating algebraic expressions, they scan to identify like terms and factors.
- Create opportunities for students to read numbers and expressions out loud. For example, when introducing the quadratic formula, ask pairs to discuss how they would communicate it verbally to another person.
- Whenever tackling a test or exam paper, start with a pile of highlighters on each table and allow time for students to highlight all the relevant information in each question (typically, this is only a fraction of each paragraph of text).
- A few moments in to every task, ensure that the instructions are understood: "Tell me what you're being asked to do". This approach is particularly useful for students with EAL, those with low reading ages and individuals on the autistic spectrum. It doesn't just apply to written questions; verbal instructions need confirmation too.
It's no use having great mathematical ideas if we can't communicate them clearly to others. Students need to be able to do this both verbally and in writing.
- Model great written communication. Once students have tried a worded exam question, show them a model solution and co-construct success criteria for them to self-assess their own work.
- Provide the answers up front, to place emphasis on how students communicate their method. This also means time spent going over the answers can be replaced with peer assessment time to review the clarity of working.
- Use Kagan Structures such as RallyRobin and Timed Pair Share to maximise the time each student spends speaking and listening.
- Avoid letting students explain new concepts when they are first introduced ("Can anybody tell me..."). The teacher's clear, concise, rehearsed explanation is almost always preferable.
- Once or twice each lesson, nominate a student to sum up what has been learned so far, so they get into the habit of articulating concepts in their own words.