Literacy in the Maths Classroom

Literacy is now the responsibility of all. In this blog, Maths teacher and trainer Hazel Lowe demonstrates how literacy outcomes can form an integral part of your practice in the Maths classroom.


During a chat with a fellow teacher, he mentioned the pupils writing stories about the lives of mathematicians as being part of the literacy/maths crossover. I agree that this can be part of literacy in teaching mathematics, but I think the point I want to make is different from that. All teaching is about communication. This can be done in many ways: explanations, diagrams, presentations, etc. The first thing a teacher or pupil does is talk, ask questions or listen. It can be about classroom organisation, management, subject material or who set off the fire bell!

I wonder if, in a classroom, you have said or heard some of these things:

  • What does the question ask us to do?
  • What are the key words in the question?
  • Can you tell me what the question is asking in your own words?
  • Can we work out what Maths the question is asking us to do?
  • When we know what is being asked, the maths is easy.

We have read so much research where we hear that pupil talk in maths is so important. Sometimes we make the mistake of assuming that maths answers are either right or wrong, so there is nothing to discuss. Look at the Numeracy Experiences and Outcomes in CFE and count how many times the words “explain” and “discuss”(13), “vocabulary”(8) “share ideas” and “communicate” (3) are mentioned and you will see how important pupil talk in maths really is. Discussion develops the metacognitive and higher order skills of pupils, and ensures they are thinking more about their learning.

I took part in a project with two local schools last year. The pupils made mathematical board games. Sounds simple, but what happened was the pupils were given the Experiences and Outcomes from level 2 and had to work out what they meant. Each group had to write questions for their game and one of the maths areas. The following lesson, the questions were swapped with other groups, who examined the questions, not just for their mathematics, but also the wording of the questions. You can imagine the discussions and debating which went on between the groups. The class also had to write and agree rules for the games.

When both schools had finished their games, they gave presentations to the other school. They wrote their presentations on powerpoint, but had to speak about the content of each slide. The children were then lucky enough to be invited to present their games at the learning festival. During the presentations, very little maths was discussed, but they communicated the process of making the games very clearly. One pupil, Megan, said that, “There is more English in this than Maths.” I think she was correct: the task involved listening, talking, writing for a purpose, summarising, evaluating and so much more. More details are on Education Scotland website...

We have to be careful with our use of language in a Maths classroom. For instance, how do you answer the question, “Which is bigger, 20p or 5p?” Have you spent loads of time talking about words which make you think “you should add?” Words like more, bigger, higher, plus, makes. Helping pupils to develop communication skills in the Maths classroom can result in less ambiguity and confusion: hopefully this blog has begun to get you thinking about ways you can boost literacy in Maths!


Our Authors Live event with Murderous Maths author Kjartan Poskitt will entertain your pupils, and the teaching resources should help you bring together literacy and Maths.

Hazel Lowe (otherwise known as mrsmaths) is a Maths teacher in Scotland, currently on a career break from teaching to provide maths CPD across Scotland.She has been a consultant for Beam and Numicon and worked in a training role for Espresso, as well as producing commercial resources of her own. She also sometimes works with a company called Rainbow Educational resources.

Visit Hazel's website to find out more about the great range of courses she offers!

Alternatively, you can contact Hazel via email.