I'm a Maths teacher, I teach numbers. Why is Literacy so important for me?
"Literacy is fundamental for success in school and later life. Students who cannot read, write and communicate effectively are highly unlikely to access the challenging academic curriculum in secondary school and are more likely to have poor educational outcomes across all subjects." (Link 3)
Unfortunately there are a lot of Maths teachers who believe (wrongly) that literacy is a thing that the English department do. They see it as a tick box for observations. Rather than being an essential component of students being able to learn maths.
So what does it look like in Maths?
Answer the question: Blindle 4x + 6
Are you able to do it?
This is the challenge a lot of students face in Mathematics. Subject specific vocabulary can seem really confusing to a lot of students. Understanding what a keyword is asking of students is often the hardest part of a question and can hold students back from answering it. In addition, there has been an increase in 'wordy' questions within assessments, for example:
Students need to know what the 'mean' is. Students need to understand what 'per' means. Students need to understand the concept of 'remaining time'. And that’s before even working anything out!
What can we do?
- At department level, the first step is to discuss the expectations of students by the time they finish Secondary school. You will be able to plan backwards from this point ensuring literacy skills is progressively built on.
- The Education Endowment Foundation (EEF) suggests the following questions to spark discussion in your department:
- What is unique about your subject discipline in terms of reading, writing, speaking and listening?
- What is common with other subject disciplines?
- How do members of this subject discipline use language on a daily basis?
- Are there any typical literacy misconceptions held by students, for example, how to write an effective science report?
- Are there words and phrases used typically, or uniquely, in the subject discipline? (link3)
You could also preview any material students will be seeing in lesson or in exams to identify the key vocabulary. Teachers need to explicitly teach the challenging vocabulary in the material to be used with students. (link1)
The Frayer model is an excellent framework to use to teach vocabulary to students. It requires students to: define the key word or phrase (often given by the teacher); make a note of examples and non-examples of the concept; and then in Maths I have used the fourth section in different ways depending on the key word. Sometimes it could be a diagram to understand the key word, sometimes it might be a key characteristic students need to know. Below is an example of a Frayer Model I used with a class studying probability.
After we have explicitly taught students the key vocabulary we need to revisit it regularly to ensure understanding is embedded. In class, we need to focus on two areas: Reading and Talking.
- Reading complex, wordy questions is a challenge for lots of students. Teachers need to take their time when teaching and explaining these problems. To support students, reveal and read out the question line by line and ask students to note down useful information. This focusses attention and encourages precise reading of questions. Teachers could model this process to show how to take notes and arrange information clearly.
- Words such as 'each', 'per', 'double' etc frequently appear in questions and need to be highlighted and clearly talked through. They are often the sticking point students have with understanding a question.
- Talk can be really powerful in a classroom if done right. Talk can be a way of formulating ideas without committing to writing it down. Students need opportunities to practice using new vocabulary. (link1) Improving classroom talk and discussion can improve outcomes in reading, writing and understanding across the curriculum (link1)
- If we want students to talk like Mathematicians they need to hear it, they need to see it, they need to use it. We need to develop the breadth of words they know as well as the depth of understanding. We can explore links between language used in different subjects and in different contexts. (link4) Teachers need to model effective talk by using subject specific language and explaining complex ideas and concepts clearly.
- Questioning, when used effectively, can encourage talk. Regularly question and retrieve student understanding about key words that are involved in the lesson. This can be done part way through explanations e.g. "Remind me, what does sum mean?" or asking students what the key word is in a particular question e.g. "Which part of this question do we need to understand before we start working it out?
- The EEF has some categories that are useful to think about the questions used in Maths:
- Clarifying: What do you mean by this?
- Summarizing: What has been the effect of this?
- Predicting: What would happen if I changed this?
Everyone is a literacy teacher. You are teaching the language of Mathematics so that students have a deeper understanding of mathematical concepts and are able to speak like Mathematicians.