Deciphering the language of maths


by Shelley Parkin – Speech and Language Therapist

It used to be a misconception among some that maths doesn’t rely much on reading and writing – surely the focus is on numbers and problem solving? In fact, as many more people are now aware, maths relies heavily on language skills. This is in terms of the vocabulary used and in understanding the word-based problems in the curriculum and subsequently, the language of maths test papers. Considerably more emphasis is now being placed on ‘reasoning’ questions since changes to the maths curriculum were introduced several years ago. This has dramatically increased the language demands of maths as a subject. Children must be able to provide a ‘mathematical justification’ – in other words, not only must they provide a written calculation but also explain what their answer shows or proves.

Every maths problem gives directions or asks a question of some sort, and a pupil, no matter how good they are at computation, risks getting the problem wrong if they cannot understand what the question is asking them to do.  When solving word-based maths problems, not only do pupils need to identify the maths operation needed, but they also need to understand the vocabulary in order to do just that. Children need practice and support with both reading and interpreting word problems and identifying the operation required - worry about the actual answer later! Children with Speech, Language and Communication Needs (SLCN) will need an even higher level of support with this process. Another important skill to develop is talking through how the answer was reached, or providing a ‘mathematical justification.’ Children will be expected to provide justification for their conclusions, which relies on language skills.

Some vocabulary is uniquely related to mathematics, e.g. ‘integer,’ ‘algorithm,’ however much of the vocabulary used has multiple meanings and occurs in other completely unrelated contexts, such as ‘reflection,’ and ‘difference.’ This can cause problems for children with SLCN who may struggle to learn vocabulary and develop a broad enough understanding of words to decipher and apply them in different contexts. It can be challenging enough to learn new words, but to keep two separate entries of the same word and their meanings in each context- that often requires specific and robust teaching.

Teachers often report that in testing situations, many students miss questions or get them wrong, not because they did not understand how to perform the underlying equations, but because they did not understand what calculation was embedded in the language used. A number of factors can contribute to this- the vocabulary, the understanding of concepts used, understanding the grammar and syntax of the question’s wording and managing the sequencing of the steps to solve the problem.

To address this, teachers can implement a number of strategies to support pupils with SLCN with mathematical vocabulary and language-based problems:

A school-wide vocabulary strategy will raise the importance of vocabulary teaching generally and encourage children to focus on and think about words and their meanings. You can read more about vocabulary teaching in our Narrowing the Word Gap blog here.. Encourage pupils to think about deeper meanings of words and give them opportunities to apply the words in context. Discuss multiple meanings, and whether any visual support can supplement the discussion. Draw attention to the sound information in the word too, such as syllables, first sound, whether it sounds like other words, and have the pupils say the word and use it in sentences. This helps with accurate storage of the vocabulary so they can recall the word and use it when they need it. Use the vocabulary again and again- children with SLCN need repeated exposure to new vocabulary to understand and use it effectively. Crucially- encourage pupils to identify any words in the questions they don’t know or haven’t come across before. Ask them to highlight these words so they can discuss them with the class teacher. Pupils can keep a record of key vocabulary and any definition, symbols or pictures that relate to them.

Understanding of concept vocabulary can be well-supported with the use of visual support- both objects and pictures. Hands-on experiences where real objects are manipulated will be particularly useful for some children. Pair these activities with the corresponding language to build a deeper understanding of key mathematical concept words.  

Children with Developmental Language Disorder should be receiving support with understanding and using language. Strategies and support systems that are being successfully used to facilitate this should be applied to language-based maths problems where possible. Shape/Colour-coding systems used in language interventions provide additional visual support and may help these children identify elements of the question, for example, which words are concepts, which ones are verbs requiring an action etc.

Sequencing the steps needed to complete a complex task can be an added complication to solving word-based maths problems for children with SLCN. Supporting sequencing skills with the use of task planners that pupils can refer to and check off as they move through the steps can support this skill. For example, reading the question first, highlighting and discussing any words they don’t know, identifying the first thing they need to do, choosing the equation etc.

Supporting children (with SLCN) with the language aspects in maths lessons will help to remove some of the barriers to developing their numeracy skills. Language underpins so much of our learning and where we can support comprehension and use of language, we enable other skills to develop as well.

Shelley Parkin, SaLT and Ashley Povey, Key Stage 2 Teacher