Traditionally, school mathematics has been a subject in which pupils have done relatively little writing. Although they may have covered pages of their exercise books with calculations and manipulation of algebraic symbols, writing in ‘natural language’ has generally been very brief, often restricted to copying definitions or rules from a textbook or blackboard (Britton et al. 1975; Spencer et al. 1983). Indeed, this lack of writing is a reason some give for preferring mathematics to other subjects. However, recent reform movements in mathematics education, both in the United Kingdom and elsewhere, have begun to change the overwhelmingly symbolic nature of school mathematics, encouraging greater use of both oral and written language. These changes have been prompted by the belief that learning can benefit from talking and writing about mathematics. The introduction of more varied and ‘authentic’ mathematical activities into the classroom has also brought with it increased demand for writing, for example, reporting the results of problem-solving and investigative work.
Assessment in mathematics has always relied heavily on pupils’ written work. At a time when the consequences of assessment are ever greater for pupils and teachers, the complexity and difficulty of the writing demanded by new forms of assessment are also increasing. There are two major concerns about this development that I shall discuss in this chapter. First, there are questions that must be raised about the way pupils’ writing is interpreted by teachers and other assessors—can it be a transparent, valid representation of understanding? Second, it is widely acknowledged that many pupils find it difficult to write effectively—how can they learn to write in ways that will lead to them being assessed as highly as possible? I shall suggest that these concerns with increased use of pupil writing in assessment practices may particularly affect the chances of pupils from disadvantaged groups in society.
This chapter is based on the following three key questions: