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May Blog 2023

The importance of literacy in maths

“Strong literacy skills give students a greater opportunity to improve their fluency of content.  This then enables students to build their knowledge and understanding within the content and problem solve to a much deeper and greater level both in your subject and make cross curriculum connections.” Mark Kyrillou (2023) (James always like research in these blogs!)

In Maths, you would think Literacy has a minor part to play and the only letters we use are “x’s” and “y’s” in algebra.  People don’t realise, but Literacy in Maths is equally as important as getting the sum correct because without knowing what they are answering or why they are answering a question, we can’t expect them to be able to get the answer correct.

“Without the input of deep, contextual learning at the beginning of every learning episode, students only learn the content on a low superficial level.  Without Literacy being taught well, the content has no meaning and students do not understand or appreciate why this learning episode has its place.  The understanding of keywords and context of the literacy give the foundations and building blocks for students to understand the content.”  Failed footballer and male model Mark Kyrillou (2023).

So what do we do in the classrooms to promote literacy, and what can every teacher consider?

Teacher prompts

  • We are considering how to get students to meet the complex demands of unpacking worded problems in Mathematics through discussion.
  • We have really considered the use of the ‘group discussion rules’ introduced to the College. Since we moved to tables it has helped us get the students to talk about their mathematical thinking and literacy demands of the subject. This needs to be planned, and we have found it so important to give them time to do this. Our next step is to consider how we structure these discussions, and we are looking into talking frames in the future.
  • We encourage students to debate possible solutions to problems in Mathematics and ask them to work together in groups to come up with different answers.

Strategies used

Without meaning to patronise anyone here, I know many of you use these strategies, but I thought I would share some of the strategies you can use:

Word searches – all the keywords they could use with this component of learning can be put in a word search. This helps with spelling. We then have a class conversation with students finding out the definitions of the keywords.

Scrabble block – you get students to give you 10 letters at random, and you write them on the board.  They then have to come up with as many words as possible linked to your topic and explain how that word is linked to the topic.

Recap (Starter) questions – include definitions or contextual question at the beginning of your lesson which gives students the opportunity to either recap or explore information.


Examples I use in my learning episodes:

  1. Where are decimals used in real life? Where have they used decimals or percentages in real life?
  2. Give 2 definitions of the word “mean”?  (Mean is the average in Maths but also used as a description of me!)
  3. Give an example of how a Scattergraph is used in Geography.  (I would have already taught them that Scattergraphs shows the relationship between two variables)
  4. Define the word ‘multiple’ or give an example?
  5. What measurements and units are used in Catering?  Or can you put these measurements used in Catering in order from biggest to smallest?
  6. Where are percentages (or figures/graphs/tables whatever I am teaching) used in Sports data?

Diagrams with no questions - I’ll put a diagram of a triangle or graph on the board and students have to come up with 5 questions they could ask about that particular diagram – they are then having to think of the keywords themselves.

Match up the keywords with the definitions - Literacy is treated with as equal importance as any question they are answering from the task given. At the start of the lesson and before I explain how to solve any question, a few minutes are spent defining the keywords – students write these with me with the same expectation of learning as the Maths content.  Planning this into our retrieval thinking means we know this will be recapped on in future learning.

I am really keen to develop cross curricular links between subjects and if anyone has any suggestions or strategies they use, I am always looking to develop my teaching and work with the T+L team here to support colleagues.  Please feel free to share your ideas with me no matter how unnecessary or basic you think your idea is.

Mark Kyrillou

Failed footballer/model/genius but happy teaching Maths!