Disciplinary Literacy in Maths

The week after next on Saturday 16th October I will be presenting at ResearchEd Surrey for the first time and I’m really looking forward to being back at a face to face conference again. My presentation will be on Disciplinary Literacy in Maths – with the words “literacy” and “maths” not usually being mentioned in the same sentence, I thought it would be interesting to look into what disciplinary literacy actually means for my subject.

I have seen many whole-school literacy drives over the years which have had varying levels of success (and relevance). I am a lover of words, and of books – I have an A Level in English Literature and I love reading anything I can to my own children, but at Durrington I have particularly loved reading to my year 9 tutor group, I always tell them it is my favourite session of the week. I can really see the importance of reading and how it helps with all sorts of other things, such as general knowledge and being able to communicate effectively, as well as the benefits of being whisked into your own world for a while. However, my subject is just not a very wordy one – we use a lot of diagrams, symbols, and shorthand, in fact as maths teachers we are often trying to stop students from writing down things in full sentences, we either want an equation, or just the relevant information. Reading the EEF Guidance Report on Improving Literacy in Secondary Schools helped me to reach an epiphany – all of these aspects of maths are not “anti-literacy”, they are just the particular (and peculiar) literacy of the discipline of maths. As the report says: “each subject has its own unique language, ways of knowing, doing and communicating” so we are not so concerned with literacy within maths, as the literacy of maths.

Once I had watched Fran Haynes’s excellent video on disciplinary reading and after doing a bit of reading around (for example ReLeah Lent’s (2017) Disciplinary Literacy: A Shift That Makes Sense) I began to think in a lot more detail about how we communicate in maths, and how important it is that we make the differences in our subject really explicit to the students we teach. My presentation next week will break this down into four areas: vocabulary and language, comprehension and understanding, talking and writing mathematically.

For each section I will explore what we want our ideal student to be like – what is it that we do as mathematicians that we need to convey to our classes? Then I will look at the difficulties that students often experience. This has been the most interesting aspect of my learning: really having to break down what we do on a daily basic in every lesson we teach to find the micro-rules that we need to be telling our students. I live and breathe maths most of the time, and although I am aware that we have a lot of subject-specific vocabulary, and even more words that mean different things just in maths, I really had to take a step back and try and think like an outsider. During discussions with my department we were trying to clarify the difference between an “unknown” and a “variable” and also to really define a “factor” – and then my own year 7 child comes home with some Science homework which says “A variable is something that can change. It is sometimes called a factor”. We had not even considered that these words are related. This really threw into sharp relief how complicated this all is for our students moving between difference lessons all of the time, and this is just the vocabulary! Understanding and comprehension is also tricky. During a revision lesson where my year 11s and I were going through an exam paper under a visualiser I noticed how reluctant many of them were to write anything on the diagrams, yet I when I am answering a question with a diagram my eyes are constantly flicking between the words and the picture, and also I don’t necessarily read a question left to right, or top to bottom, but jump around all over the place. I am now making an extra effort to explain this to my students. Writing in maths is also very different – for a start we tend to work down the page rather than from left to right which some students are very reluctant to do. And then of course there is the cardinal sin of the misuse of the equals sign which every maths teacher hates (but probably doesn’t pick up upon enough):

6 x 5 = 30 + 12 = 42

In my presentation I will go on to explore what we can do to help students in each of the four areas above and also look at some useful takeaway resources. Thankfully lots of the elements of teaching for mastery, (and also many of Rosenshine’s Principles of Instruction) deal directly with aiming for students to have a deep understanding of what they are learning and hence lend themselves well to improving disciplinary literacy in maths – find out more here.

Please do come and see me at ResearchEd Surrey on October 16th if you are in the area.

Deb Friis

Deb is a maths teacher at Durrington High School. She is also a Maths Research Associate for Durrington Research School and Sussex Maths Hub Secondary Co-Lead and will be delivering our training on the EEF Guidelines for KS2 and 3 Maths.

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