Developing Literacy Through Maths

maths loveSam Down – @SDown4 –  is a Progress Leader in our hugely successful maths department.  Recently he has been looking at strategies that maths teachers can use to enhance maths learning, whilst also developing literacy skills.

The following article is a summary of some of the strategies he has been trying out in his classroom and sharing with the department.  If you are a maths teacher, who has been looking at similar developmental work, please feel free to contact Sam via twitter, or leave a comment on this post.

Developing Literacy in the teaching and learning of Mathematics – Sam Down, Durrington High School

In line with the new National Curriculum (2013) which states “Teachers should develop pupils’ spoken language, reading and writing as integral aspects of the teaching of every subject”, we are currently focusing on the different ways we can embed literacy into the teaching and learning of Mathematics at Durrington High School.

Our focus has been divided into three main areas, these are;

  • Spelling key terms correctly
  • Promoting the use of Mathematical language during lessons
  • Developing literacy through discussion

With each of these we have looked at the different strategies that are already in use by other practitioners to allow us to develop literacy in the teaching and learning of Mathematics, these are summarised below.

Spelling key mathematical terms correctly

There are a number of simple ways to promote the correct spelling of key mathematical terms as we introduce and use them in the classroom.

  • Break words in to sounds q-u-a-d-r-i-l-a-t-e-r-a-l
  • Break words in to syllables cir-cum-fer-ence
  • Use of the look, say, cover, write, check system when a word is first introduced
  • Refer to words alongside related words e.g. multiple, multiply, multiplication
  • Look for words in words e.g hypotenuse to help students remember spellings
  • Use of vowel-less key terms to assess students spelling e.g. prlllgrm, rhmbs, qdrltrl

Promoting Mathematical vocabulary in class

By promoting and rewarding the use of correct mathematical vocabulary in class, students become more willing to try to use key terms in the correct context. Some of the techniques we are trying are listed below:

  • Be a role model – use correct mathematical terms and expect students to follow suit
  • Display mathematical vocabulary around the classroom
  • Introduce new terminology but also consolidate previously used terms wherever possible
  • Highlight new vocabulary as it is used in context so students begin to understand when to use it
  • Create topic displays that include key terminology
  • Students use a pen/highlighter to highlight key terms in worded questions
  • Fill in the gap tasks. E.g. there are three equal angles and three equal in a _________ triangle. Each angle is equal to _____.
  • Embed in marking policy.

Developing literacy through discussion activities

Below are some of the activities we have implemented to develop discussion in Mathematics lessons to help further embed literacy.

  • Always, Sometimes, Never

Students are shown a statement and are asked to decide whether the statement is always true, sometimes true or never true.  Students should justify their answer with examples and non-examples to the class.

  • Presenting Work

Build in opportunities for students to present to the class. Whether it be an organised presentation which they research for or coming to the board to explain their solution to a given problem.

  • Odd One Out

3 items – all linked (e.g. three triangles, all different types). Students must justify each one as being the odd one out in as many ways as they can.

  • Talking Tennis

Students take it in turn to say a key word relating to a topic e.g naming quadrilaterals. This can be extended by then describing the defining properties of each quadrilateral.

  • Coaching

Partners take it in turn solving problems whilst being coached by a peer. Useful for revising a topic previously covered.

  • Taboo

A student is given a mathematical word to describe to peers. They are given a list of words they can’t use to describe it.

  • True or False

Students shown a series of questions and answers and are asked to vote T or F for each one. Students can be asked each time to explain why a question and answer is true or false.

  • Find the fib

Students are shown a key term and are given three or four examples of this, one of which is incorrect – students to vote for which the fib is. This allows for discussion when students vote for different options. This works well to discuss common misconceptions.

Using these techniques and other paired/grouped activities has allowed for many opportunities in lessons for students to use key terminology correctly in discussion.

Some other strategies we have been trialling:

The Frayer Model

We have used this model to assess students understanding of key terms. We are currently using these at the end of topics to assess how well they have understood key terms that have been used throughout that topic.

Students fill in the definition, facts / characteristics about the key term, give examples and also importantly they give non examples of the key term. I.e. if the key word was quadrilateral an example would be a rhombus and a non example would be a pentagon.



Using this model has allowed us as teachers to be informed as to whether there is a key term that some or all students are still unsure of. It also gives students the opportunity to express their understanding about the different terms they have learnt within a given topic. This can then lead on to questioning of students to help deepen their level of understanding of different key terms.

See below for an example of this.


Compare and contrast two concepts


I recently used this model to discuss the difference between expressions and equations with a low ability year 8 class towards the end of the algebra topic. Asking them to fill this in in pairs allowed them the chance to discuss and debate what the differences and similarities were in turn deepening their level of understanding of these key terms, which are often confusing for some students.

Vocabulary Rating Scale / Spelling Check

The table below is an adaptation of a vocabulary scale which allows students the opportunity to look at a list of key terms and show what level of understanding they have of the key terms by simply putting a tick in the relevant column. We are currently using this at the beginning of a topic to inform our teaching. This could also be used at the end of a topic to assess whether students level of understanding of the key terms has improved by ticking the columns again in a different colour.

Furthermore, we have included a spelling check column and ask students to use the look, say, cover, write, check system with each key term they are going to be using in a given topic.


Students have reacted well to this model and have been pleased to see the progress they have made in terms of their understanding of key terms from the beginning to the end of a topic.


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6 Responses to Developing Literacy Through Maths

  1. Sue marooney says:

    Well done Sam
    Creative, engaging with an emphasis on improvement.

  2. Amanda Glanfiield says:

    Hi Sam,

    I love the ideas that you have come up with. I researched theFreya Model for my undergrad dissertation and completed a small trial with a group of year 8 low ability students. Once they grasped the concept, they found it really useful.

    I am now a PGCE secondary mathematics trainee and intend to use the model during my placements. I really liked your adaption where you compare and contrast two concepts.

    I am very interested in developing literacy in the teaching and learning of mathematics and will definitely trial the strategies you have mentioned above.

  3. Ashley Metcalfe says:

    That was a very insightful bit of writing which has given me many ideas!


  4. Jo Davis says:

    I work in a school with a high proportion of EAL students. I will trial some of the ideas you discuss. Thanks for the ideas.

  5. Pingback: Encouraging literacy in maths lessons  | ktlmaths

  6. Hi Sam, I’m studying to become a high school maths teacher in Australia and came across this page looking for ideas for developing literacy in the maths classroom for an exam on Thursday! Thank you for sharing these. Not only are they helpful for my exam, but I look forward to using them in the classroom. I have bookmarked your blog as one to read for inspiration throughout my learning.

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