Why it’s important to see maths as a language

|6 min read

Editor’s Note:

This is an updated version of a blog post published on August 8, 2018

Humans use over 6,500 languages across the world today but many of us only speak one or two. Or do we?

Every subject we teach has its own unique language whether it be music, science or geography so, in fact we are all multilingual.

It is essential that we also see maths as a language. When we think of fluency in a foreign language it involves thinking in that language and that’s just the same for maths. When we think in maths, we speak in maths terms and express mathematical meanings.

The maths register

Maths has its own distinctive way of speaking, its own conventions and a particular way of using language. So, in order to master maths you need to know lots of maths words and learn a maths register.

Maths uses specialist vocabulary, grammatical structures, precision in expression and symbols which are a precise form of shorthand. To understand their meaning we rely on context and convention. Like other languages, the maths register is never static but constantly evolving.

To take part in its discourse, children have to learn specific words. Becoming fluent in maths is a communication journey like all others with roadblocks to contend with. We should never underestimate the cognitive load involved. It can be easy to forget that in order to have control over the concepts of maths requires time. Learning the maths register places extra demands on learning and so, discourse in the maths classroom should aim for a lack of ambiguity and confident use of essential vocabulary. ‘Speaking’ maths is hard work.

Language learning involves a lot of uncertainty. As your pupils start to learn maths words you will find that things can get confusing for them. They will encounter the same word in a different context where it doesn’t have the same meaning. As Joan M. Kenney notes in ‘Literacy Strategies For Improving Maths Instruction’ (2005), maths is packed with “confusing terms, formats and symbols”.

Ambiguities and double meanings can confuse understanding making it a struggle to get to that special place where you can differentiate between them. That journey involves impaired communication and serious mathematical misunderstanding. Our job as teachers is to make bridges between the discourse of maths and the discourse that children use from their everyday language.

Maths talk in the classroom

There is no easy way around learning the language of maths because this demands intelligent effort where a pupil will learn what words and symbols mean in different contexts.

To learn, improve, and truly use the language of maths, we need to speak, which is why maths discussions and debate are so important. Children have to be verbally active in every lesson and use the target language. They can think in maths but they have to verbalise it too which is why we need to constantly engage children in purposeful maths talk.

Learning a language is exciting, but it can also be daunting.

In fact, a fear of maths isn’t just related to whether you can add up, recall your times tables or work out a percentage discount, it is also connected to the power of language and the art of stumbling. If children don’t take risks and use maths language then they can clam up and feelings of insecurity and shyness can creep in and hinder concept development. Just as we might find it difficult to give things a go and speak French, Spanish or German, the same applies to maths.

The more children speak maths, the quicker they will improve and part of that is making plenty of mistakes. This is why a culture of mistake-making is crucial in a mastery classroom because it normalises mistakes as learning curves. Silent periods in maths are necessary but talking maths should occupy the bulk of our time when learning.

Some children will happily chat away in maths lessons but they can be resistant to using maths words and need to be encouraged. The only way to be fluent is to engage in maths conversations.

As ‘The State of Speaking in Our Schools’ report from Will Millard and Loic Menzies argues, talk is “the most powerful tool of communication in the classroom and it is fundamentally central to the acts of teaching and learning”.

Encouraging conversation

Clearly mathematical oracy matters and we can promote it through games, physical structures, talk structures, problem solving structures and rich tasks such as provocative statements. Concept cartoons are my favourite talking tool in maths and across the curriculum because they kick-start conversations and provide exciting contexts for exploratory talk and ideas exchange. They also promote active listening skills and engender turn-taking.

Providing opportunities for children to express themselves, engage in dialogue and argue about their ideas supports the unpacking of maths and the unfurling of maths language skills.

We need to encourage pupils to ask lots of questions because the language of mathematics is founded in curiosity. How we talk to children and the levels of questioning we use is critical. Are we inviting them to explore concepts or merely leading them down our desired route of questioning?

We can also encourage greater fluency by getting pupils to use a maths journal to record new and unfamiliar maths words and build up their own dictionary of vocabulary.

Recycling maths words is important because what most of us are brilliant at doing is forgetting. Many studies have shown that after only two days 70% of what we have been taught/processed on day 1, is lost and after a week without any memory rehearsal, about 80% of it is forgotten. Those maths words have therefore got to be recycled through the week and over the term.

Maths policy in your school

Maths policies have got to pack a punch and every school needs to make a big deal of maths talk and the importance of mathematical oracy. Your policy should clearly communicate that children must be able to talk confidently about the maths they are working on and use the correct vocabulary. It also needs to state that children must be able to cogently and concisely explain their thinking and working in maths and that maths talk is highly valued as a unique way of communicating.

A policy must communicate that these key skills are defined, understood, modelled, encouraged and developed by all teachers with a responsibility for maths and that they have cognitive empathy for children learning maths as an additional language.