Developing language in maths

Whether or not you pay much attention to Bloom’s Taxonomy and the like, teaching children how to explain their thinking/working/methods etc in maths is key. Yes, we want them to be able to do stuff efficiently, but in an ideal world we want them to be able to understand what they’re doing too. And, let’s face it, any year 6 teacher will know that those pesky ‘Is Reuben correct? Explain your answer’ questions do tend to pop up.

In my experience, having a decent grasp of the mathematical vocabulary needed is one thing that can help children with this and when it comes to vocabulary, they need to be able to use it when talking before you can really expect them to use it fluently in their written answers.

A recent tweet from Doug Lemov has resulted in a subtle shift of how I’m going about this. Doug was tweeting about how he’d observed Jo Facer build academic vocabulary in her English lessons.

On the board, she had the advanced vocabulary she wanted her students to use in their verbal responses. This doesn’t sound ground-breaking in itself – key vocabulary on display in primary classrooms is pretty standard – but it did make me reflect on how we use that vocabulary. Do the children actually use it? How? Or is it just there looking, well, pretty?

Since then, when I am modelling on the board or demonstrating a strategy in maths, I write up the key vocabulary needed to properly explain that strategy – sometimes I might get some of the children in my maths group to suggest some too. When I demonstrate, I explicitly refer to the words on the list, pointing them when I use them and I ask the group, how I’m doing with the key words. Then, when a child comes to the board to demonstrate or model, they have to try and use it correctly too. When they give a verbal explanation, I’ll also use the list as a prompt, if they don’t.

Hopefully, long term, this will help with their written explanations and also just clarify their thinking. In the meantime, something must be working because while one child was at the board demonstrating how to multiply two fractions the other day, one of my colleagues, who happened to be walking past, came into the room because he wanted to say how impressed he was with the explanation he’d heard. 🙂

Flickr Photo: Licorice Fill-In Expressions by Enokson – CC BY-NC

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