Guest Blog: The Vital Importance of Vocabulary in Maths

Mari Palmer, headteacher of Settrington Primary School and Director of North Yorks Coast Research School, explores three major issues she and colleagues have found with vocabulary in maths - and suggests five points for development in the year ahead...

Over the last year, we have enjoyed working with secondary school colleagues across that vital transition from Years 6 to 7. We explored lots of pertinent issues related to mathematics at the transition, such as fractions, algebra, representations, and maths anxiety. 

Crucially, however, one key issue continues to raise it’s head: vocabulary.

Though the importance of vocabulary in maths teaching and learning was not a shock given the knowledge gained in recent years, the sheer consistency with which it was raised as an issue was a surprise.

There are three major issues we have found with vocabulary in maths:

1) The challenge of applying vocabulary strategies to word problems.

A traditional primary technique would be to do something like asking pupils to underline the key vocabulary in a word problem to try and get them to 'pick out' key information. 

We took this further using a ‘Talk for Writing’-style model a few years ago – see here.

Another commonly used approach has been the RUCSAC method (guiding pupils to Read, Understanding, Choose, Solve, Answer and Check).

However, the problem with this is that some of the information is very ambiguous, depending on how the question is framed – e.g. "I have 12 red tomatoes and 8 green tomatoes. How many more red tomatoes than green tomatoes do I have?"

Using the above method pupils could zoom in on the word "more" and think, "'More' means it gets bigger - I must have to add them". Basically, if you teach them to look for certain words and numbers they can still manage to perform the wrong operation if they don't understand the question. This method encourages them to rule out some of the words which they may actually need.

2) The wider vocabulary obstructs them more than the maths vocabulary

At some training from the local Maths hub, we heard from a secondary teacher talking about teaching true understanding rather than tricks - in particular, regarding fractions. 

rsn_blog_-_mastery_fraction

info_outline Fraction problem

He was saying, for example, that pupils coming into secondary might have really good SATs results but may not be able to do problems like the one shown.

Obviously, I then took the problem straight to my class! It transpired that three of them couldn't do it because they didn't know what a rod was. They thought it was a fishing rod and so they were looking all over for a fishing rod! 

2) Teachers use different vocabulary

This has emerged as a key theme to our maths transition project and a focus for the coming year. 

Some staff were using different words for the same mathematical concepts, which proved confusing for pupils. This diverse use of mathematical vocabulary was also a surprise for teachers.

We had six clusters working last year on different things and they all spoke about vocabulary being an issue. The look on one of the secondary teachers faces when I first started describing number families was a picture – a picture that illustrated a "what on earth are you on about?" look!

What are we going to do about vocabulary?

These are our suggested points for development for the coming school year:

  • We are planning on asking groups, on a very basic level, to just do observations where they 'collect' vocabulary from other classrooms. There will be no judgement on the use of this – just a recognition that the pupils may encounter this vocabulary at some point and need to recognise how it fits together. This very low-stakes observation purpose is also a good way for groups to develop trust when observing colleagues from other schools.
  • We are developing a maths vocabulary assessment with a department at the University of York on the area of fractions. It will be a receptive vocabulary test. This is just for our purposes at the moment as we seek to understand and address the challenge.
  • Look at the National Curriculum and explore with Key Stage 2 and Key Stage 3 teachers together what their understanding is of the meaning of the vocabulary in it. It is very ambiguous in places – such as the definition of ‘equation’ – and this doesn’t help with the efforts of teachers to explain to pupils.
  • We are going to use representations – mentioned in the EEF's ‘Improving Mathematics in Key Stages 2 and 3' guidance report as being helpful. We have found, anecdotally, that, by asking children to draw the problem, the vocabulary problem can be partly overcome too. I always feel like the reverse of the ITV Catchphrase presenter who used to say, "Say what you see!" – I am forever saying "Just draw what it says!"... and they seem to get there.
  • Lastly, the only other way that we seem to be able to overcome the issue is just to do lots and lots of word problems. This has been by far the most successful technique in our school as the kids just get used to what they are being asked to do (eventually!).

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Find out more about Mari Palmer’s work here