Kerryn Boogaard Kerryn Boogaard
Beverly Goldsmith Beverly Goldsmith
Zoe Bingley-Pullin Zoe Bingley-Pullin

Are kids failing in maths because they can’t read?:

National & international testing shows Australian students are not getting any better at maths. Why?
By Misty Adoniou
Date: March 24 2014
Editor Rating:
maths-teaching-abacus

There has been a lot of hand-wringing about mathematics lately. We are not getting any better at it and plenty of good reasons have been offered for why this may be so. Not enough students are studying it, not enough students like it, and there are not enough qualified teachers teach it. But a much less discussed explanation is that some of our kids fail in maths because they can’t read the questions.

How is maths teaching changing?

Students often complain they can’t see the point of maths - beyond basic arithmetic. In response, keen teachers look for ways to show them how maths is relevant to their daily lives. Trigonometry is set inside problem solving about rugby ball angles and penalty kicks, probability is used to predict the winners of X Factor and Pythagoras’ theorem is applied to save people from a burning building.

This shift to meaning and context in learning maths is laudable, but it does fundamentally change the nature of maths teaching in ways that teachers are not currently trained for.

When we build stories around maths problems to give them a real-life relevance, we introduce contexts that may be unfamiliar to some students, or information that is irrelevant to the maths of the question. One of the questions in the most recent PISA maths tests began:

95% of world trade is moved by sea, by roughly 50,000 tankers, bulk carriers and container ships. Most of these ships use diesel fuel. Engineers are planning to develop wind power support for ships. Their proposal is to attach kite sails to ships and use the wind’s power to help reduce diesel consumption and the fuel’s impact on the environment.

None of this information was necessary to solve the mathematical question that followed. A student may spend a deal of time distracted by this information, either trying to read it successfully or trying to figure out if the paragraph contains anything crucial to the maths question that followed.

Being a good reader with a broad general knowledge has become integral to mathematical achievement, so teaching language has become a necessary part of teaching maths.

Many maths teachers roll their eyes when talk turns to teaching language in the maths classroom. They already have a packed schedule just trying to fit the maths content in, let alone teach language - and, anyway, isn’t that the English teacher’s job?

But being an avid reader of novels is no guarantee of success in maths, as the mathematics classroom generates its own unique mix of everyday language and maths-specific language. It is only the maths teacher who has the discipline knowledge to teach it. This is equally true for the generalist primary teacher who must also teach how language works differently in every subject area, including maths.

Language in the maths classroom

Vocabulary is the key to success in reading comprehension and this is particularly true in mathematical reading. In a novel, unknown words can often be guessed from context, or even skipped, and meaning can still be maintained. However, in maths, if one word is not understood it is probable the entire sentence will be misconstrued.

In the PISA example given earlier there is no redundancy in the maths question that followed the lengthy prelude information.

At what approximate speed does the wind blow into a kite sail when a wind speed of 24 km/h is measured on the deck of the ship?

The linguistics of this question are more complex than the maths it seeks to test.

Often, words in mathematics can seem familiar to the student but are used in ways that are specific to maths. For example, in this question from a Year 7 maths textbook the word “decimated” is key to getting the maths right.

99 Roman soldiers who fled from battle were to be punished. The group was lined up and decimated. How many were killed?

Mathematically, “decimated” maintains its original meaning of “one in ten”. In common parlance, however, “decimated” has come to mean “completely wiped out”. Clearly, the two interpretations of the word “decimated” will each result in a very different answer to this maths problem, but only one will be correct in the maths classroom.

It’s not just words. Sentences can also work differently in mathematics. Usually in English there is a sequential logic to sentences; we start at the beginning and read through to the end and rely on this predictability for comprehension.

However, in mathematics the logic of sentences may be organised in more unexpected ways. For example, “Draw a circle with a diameter of one-third the sum of 6+9+15”, requires the learner to start the operation from the end of the sentence and move backwards through to the beginning of the sentence in order to successfully complete the instruction.

These language differences need to be explicitly taught to students, but very often the language is so familiar to teachers they fail to notice what they should be making visible to their students.

All teachers need a strong and explicit understanding of how the English language works. Knowing your content simply isn’t enough to make a real difference to student learning outcomes.

Why it matters

Students who fail in mathematics are less likely to go on to further study and more likely to have lower-paying jobs.

To teach maths properly we have to be clear on whether students are getting it wrong because they don’t understand the maths or because they can’t comprehend the questions. Either is serious, and both require very different teaching solutions. Teachers must take up the challenge and teach both the content and the language of mathematics, but how well prepared are they to do that?

* * *

The ConversationThis article was originally published on The Conversation

Share This Tweet This Email To Friend
Recent Comments
0 Total Comments
Post a Comment
* your email address will not appear

Please enter the word you see in the image below:


Post a Comment
* your email address will not appear

Please enter the word you see in the image below:33343


Your Comment has been posted
Related Articles
test_tubes
Curiousity and creativity are essential for success in the science…
Read more
girl_writing_maths_on_blackboard
The lack of compulsory study of maths in schools is…
Read more
teacher
Students who want to be teachers will be benchmarked for…
Read more
literacy-and-numeracy
This week is Literacy & Numeracy Week in schools, with…
Read more
Shipping-containers-freight-wallpaper-preview

Latest Tech Used In Shipping Containers
Read how the shipping industry has revolutionised

Motherpedia cover-2

Win 1 set of a 4-book hardcover illustrated boxed set
Barbara Murray’s new 4-book Sound Stories is perfect for parents and educators and could assist with NAPLAN results

Motherpedia cover (4)

Where to celebrate Oktoberfest Australia
Get ready for this celebration!

Vtech giveaway motherpedia

Win 1 of 3 VTech Toys Pack Giveaway
Playtime is so much more with VTech

Motherpedia cover-4

A Fortnight of Foodie Experiences at East Village
A taste of East Village. What's in it for me?

Globber my too fix up cover

We Try: Globber My TOO Fix Up
A scooter that grows with your child

Throw a winning cricket pitch

3 Steps to a Winning Backyard Cricket Pitch
Ex-Adelaide Oval legend curator Les Burdett shares his tips for getting your backyard cricket pitch test match ready this summer

A bike that follows your kids life cycle - motherpedia - cover

A Bike That Follows Your Kids Life Cycle
Check out the Bunzi 2-in-1 gradual balance bike!

Moonlight lifestyle

Moonlight Cinema to bring…
Moonlight Cinema announces brand new Western Sydney venue

Screen shot 2019-11-26 at 8.29.12 am

Your Magical Christmas Wonderland…
Adventure park is about to light up the night sky with its "Christmas Festival of Lights"

Screen shot 2019-11-21 at 11.11.36 am

The Preston Market Gets…
It's time to feel pumped up for the holiday season!

Bruno-kelzer-zqzuigxcvrq-unsplash

Bunnings team members get…
Help raise funds by buying a snag or donating at your local store.