Literacy in Mathematics
It was when I was teaching a GCSE group recently that I realised the extent to which poor literacy can be a massive barrier to students when it comes to fulfilling their Mathematical potential. I had just started talking about “proportion” when one of my Y10 students enthusiastically piped up, “Oh Miss, I know that, like in a proportion of rice.” Funny in one sense, but desperately worrying in another especially when it was one of a string of vocabulary issues that included confusing “correlation” with “like what happens to the Queen.”
Poor oracy, and a lack of Mathematical language and vocabulary, are inevitably going to limit our students’ ability to excel in Mathematics. If they cannot understand what the question is asking them, how are they supposed to start applying their Mathematical knowledge? And yet as teachers of Mathematics, developing our students’ language of Mathematics is often low on our priority list. How often do we ask ourselves how well our students understand Mathematical vocabulary? When analysing assessments question by question, how often do we stop to think whether a student not attempting a question stemmed from not being able to apply Mathematical processes or whether instead it was down to not being able to understand what the question was asking in the first place? When setting assessments, for example a GCSE paper for Year 7 students, do we actually stop to think about the reading age that the assessment is orientated towards, and whether we are unfairly penalising students by not preparing them for the level of literacy that such an assessment requires?
It can be very tempting as a teacher to “dumb down” our language to make our teaching more “accessible” to weaker students and yet by doing so we do a massive disservice to them. The gap between students with poor oracy and their peers is simply widened by this approach. The way a child develops language is by being exposed to an increasingly complex level of vocabulary by those around them. We also have a duty as teachers of Mathematics to expose our students to an increasingly complex level of Mathematical language. Sure, at first they will struggle with this, but over time this is the only way that their Mathematical language will develop. If you mention the words “product” and “sum” frequently in Mathematics lessons over time, even the weakest of learners will then associate them with the Mathematical processes of multiplication and addition. When asking students to improve their scores, why not talk about “increasing” them instead. There are countless opportunities to use key vocabulary in our everyday conversations with students.
It is also important to insist on correct explanations from students, giving support for students to develop these as needed. For example if a student is talking about substitution, insist on them using the word substitution rather than “swapping it in” or “changing it for”. If a student is talking about reflections don’t allow them to use the phrase “flip it”. Our expectations for correct Mathematical vocabulary should be high for all our students, not just for our more able learners.
I have tried various strategies within the classroom and across our department to improve our students’ literacy within Mathematics: I have set up competitions for the “explanation of the week”; given our students assessments specifically aimed at testing their Mathematical vocabulary; developed form activities that reinforce key words; covered walls and display boards with the vocabulary our students need and made sure to list key words and reference them in lessons. All these have taken a fair amount of effort on my part. (http://www.mrshowardsnumeracynetwork.com/index.php/mathematical-literacy)
However ultimately, simple, small changes in how I word my questions and explanations in the classroom, and what I expect in terms of responses from my students, are what is having the biggest impact on the oracy of my students. I have noticed more resilience when tackling unfamiliar wording in questions and a much more confident use of correct vocabulary when giving explanations. Students refer to the mathematical dictionaries they have created at the back of their exercise books and, over time, words that they previously struggled to recognise have become part of their everyday Mathematical vocabulary. As a result I have started to feel that I am teaching not just students, but Mathematicians, and that is a very rewarding feeling indeed.