# Research School Network: Exploring Disciplinary Literacy in Maths In advance of our webinar, Amarbeer Singh Gill considers how we read, consume and process mathematical information.

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## Exploring Disciplinary Literacy in Maths

### In advance of our webinar, Amarbeer Singh Gill considers how we read, consume and process mathematical information.

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by Greenshaw Research School

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If you’re anything like me, you might have get slightly worked up at the sight of ‘maths’ and ‘literacy’ in the same sentence and already be gearing up to shout “but maths is different!”.

I’d be lying if I said that wasn’t my first reaction, but I’d also be lying if I said I was definitely too quick to judge.

Let me use the question below to explain what I mean:

- Where did you find your attention drawn to?
- In which order did you process the different bits of information?
- What additional information did you think of?
- Why did you think of that additional information?
- Did you look at the diagram just once?
- Were there specific aspects of it that you went back to a few times?

These questions (and their associated answers) are all part of the disciplinary literacy of maths, *“the thinking used by experts as they perform as scientists, mathematicians, historians, etc.” (Hillman, 2014). *

Join us for our upcoming webinar where we’ll why this is important and how to incorporate into our classrooms. And continue reading to get a flavour of what we’ll be covering.

### What are disciplinary habits of reading Maths?

Maths is a unique subject that seems to have its own language which includes single letters, groups of letters, very short sentences, diagrams, symbols, numbers and shorthand.

Reading maths requires interpretation, translation and pattern recognition.

To add another layer of complexity you’ll often find that when you are reading questions, which involve something in addition to words like diagrams, statistics or equations, you don’t necessarily read from left to right or top to bottom.

You jump around the page based on the information you have read and how it links to the diagram (as you probably did for the question earlier).

Reading maths requires interpretation, translation and pattern recognition.

We’ll also add in additional information, or take the information from one place and put it somewhere else (eg writing coordinates onto the graph where they’ve been plotted rather than having them separate in the question).

How does this differ to other subject disciplines?

### What is unique about the language and structure of Maths texts?

The way language is used in maths priorities concision over a narrative, *“The language of mathematicians is precise, one in which every word is included deliberately and slight changes will alter the meaning of an entire proposition (Shanahan & Shanahan, 2008). *

Assistant director of our Research School, Johnny Richards, demonstrates this excellently when comparing typical tasks in maths versus history, noting “*the mathematical problem reads like a menu of single statements without a written link. A student must interpret their relationship and locate the question” (Richards, 2024). *

Our expertise allows us to make these links almost unconsciously, we see beyond the surface structures of the problems and can see the maths beneath it.

This also highlights another feature of worded maths problems, almost all have the same structure (Barwell, 2011):

- Scenario
- Information
- Question

We can see this even more clearly in this helpfully annotated example below (Feeney, 2021):

Alongside technical vocabulary and the challenged posed by it, maths also involves common everyday words that mean one thing in a maths context and something else in general language eg mean, mode, integrate, power.

We can also see similar challenges within the syntax of maths itself: 4x uses the operation multiply, but 4 _{1/2} uses the operation addition, despite them both involving ‘4’ being next to something else.

So, what can we do to support students to navigate these challenges?

Maths also involves common everyday words that mean one thing in a maths context and something else in general language eg mean, mode, integrate, power.

### What specific strategies might be used to guide students in the classroom?

As teachers we’re so well versed in our subject we can sometimes be guilty of overlooking those questions.

Explicitly sharing with our students how we read, consume, and process mathematical information is vital in helping them understand our subject.

Alongside the modelling that we likely already do we can:

- Insist on the correct and rigorous use of mathematical language (ensuring students are successful in doing so).
- Explicitly model how we read and process problems, particularly longer worded problems.
- Support students to routinise how they read and process problems.
- Support students with their metacognition by getting them to reflect on how they’re reading and processing problems.

**Join us on Monday 24 ^{th} June to find out more about what disciplinary literacy in maths is, why it can make an impact on student outcomes, and how we can use it in our classrooms.**

Explicitly sharing with our students how we read, consume, and process mathematical information is vital in helping them understand our subject.

### References

Barwell, R. (2011). Word problems: Connecting language, mathematics and life what works. Research into Practice: Research Monograph, 34.

Feeney, C. (2021). Read like a Mathematician. Language Conscious T & L. https://clarefeeneyuk.com/?p=69

Hillman, A. M. (2014). A literature review on disciplinary literacy: How do secondary teachers apprentice students into mathematical literacy?. Journal of Adolescent & Adult Literacy, 57(5), 397 – 406.

Shanahan, T., & Shanahan, C. (2008). Teaching disciplinary literacy to adolescents: Rethinking content area literacy. Harvard Educational Review, 78(1), 40 – 59.

Richards, J. (2024). What is Disciplinary Literacy and how can we embed it?. Greenshaw Research School. *https://researchschool.org.uk/greenshaw/news/what-is-disciplinary-literacy-and-how-can-we-embed-it*

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