The Place of Literacy in Teaching and Learning Maths

By Fox, Sonya | Practical Literacy, October 2016 | Go to article overview

The Place of Literacy in Teaching and Learning Maths


Fox, Sonya, Practical Literacy


The Australian Curriculum reminds us that we are all teachers of literacy irrespective of the subject specific area we may be teaching (ACARA, 2015). In thinking about the place of literacy in teaching maths, for example, the General Capabilities documents state that: 'Students use literacy to understand and interpret word problems and instructions that contain the particular language features of mathematics. They use literacy to pose and answer questions, engage in mathematical problem-solving, and to discuss, produce and explain solutions' (ACARA, 2015). Specific examples include 'the vocabulary associated with number, space, measurement and mathematical concepts and processes' along with other vocabulary that 'includes synonyms, technical terminology, passive voice and common words with specific meanings in a mathematical context' (ACARA, 2015).

The importance of teaching literacy to aid student learning in maths may be illustrated by an example from informal classroom research that I undertook with my Year 2 students. I was trying to understand the challenges they faced on one assessment task on which they had not done as well as I had hoped. I was also curious about the effectiveness of strategies that I was using such as reading out the questions, explaining words and deconstructing the questions. I decided to ask my class to jointly reflect on the task so they could help me to help them more in the future. The following three examples show the thoughts of the children throughout our discussions. I have bolded the parts that students considered difficult to understand and discussed these below.

Example 1

Taylor made four number patterns.

Write the next three numbers in each number pattern.

0, 3, 6, 9, 12, __, __, __

13, 15, 17, 19, __, __, __

33, 28, 23, 18, __, __, __

42, 47, 52, 57, 62, __, __, __

(Department of Education & Training, 2016)

In the opening line of the first example, 'Taylor made four number patterns', the students said they found it problematic having to first decode 'Taylor' before thinking about the four number patterns Taylor wrote. Although we discussed how the additional information of including Taylor's name may have been distracting and that the maths problem could have been completed without this sentence, realising the challenges the students faced was useful in reminding me about the language and form of many written maths tasks. Helping students to know that the name 'Taylor' is used to make the task more relatable for them and that this is a common feature of written maths problems, was something I took away from the discussion.

Example 2

Navod wrote a number pattern.

He increased each number by 5 to get the next number.

Identify and circle Navod's number pattern.

5, 10, 20, 40, ...

12, 17, 22, 27, ...

10, 14, 19, 25, ...

15, 25, 35, 45, ...

(Department of Education & Training, 2016)

In the second example, some students also indicated that the name 'Navod' challenged them because they had not heard it before. Some other students realised it was the name of a person but that they became lost as soon as they read the sentence or when the sentence was read to them. The words 'increased' and 'identify' created most confusion. We thought about how the question could have been written, such as: 'Which of the number patterns listed below shows skip counting in 5s? …

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