Research School Network: Mind Your Language This blog explores how adults can change their language to encourage greater independence in the maths classroom.

Mind Your Language

This blog explores how adults can change their language to encourage greater independence in the maths classroom.

by Newcastle Research School
on the

Judy Waddle

Judy Waddle

Deputy Director of Newcastle Research School

Read more aboutJudy Waddle
Laura Tullock

Laura Tullock

Great North Maths Hub Lead

Read more aboutLaura Tullock

In this blog Laura Tullock and Judy Waddle explore how adults can change their language to support pupils to develop greater independence in the maths classroom.

‘I’m stuck…what should I do next?’

Sound familiar? This is a phrase I’m sure many teachers have encountered in classrooms across the country, particularly in maths classrooms.

It’s a behaviour which teachers in an action research group led in partnership with the Newcastle Research School and the Great North Maths Hub have been exploring. The group have been looking at how some simple yet effective changes in language can influence the narrative – from pupils relying heavily on teacher support to them problem solving more independently.

Building mathematical motivation and independence

Recommendation 5 of the EEF’s​Improving Mathematics at Key Stages 2 and 3 guidance report highlights the need for teachers to develop pupils’ independence and motivation. It also states that this requires pupils to develop metacognition — the ability to independently plan, monitor and evaluate their thinking and learning.’

Looking at the research evidence in this guidance report and linking it to others helped build a clear picture of the vital role adults play in this development.

Taken together with recommendations in the EEF Guidance Report Making the Best Use of Teaching Assistants, it became clear that the language we use can build independence in pupils.

In recommendation 3 of that report, the EEF gives a framework for considering interactions between pupils and teaching assistants.

Self scaffolding
Figure 1: Scaffolding framework for teaching assistant-pupil interactions

Putting the evidence into practice

Taking our reflections to the classroom, we observed pupils working independently’ at problem solving tasks and their interactions with adults. What we noticed across our settings was that when pupils became stuck’, they usually turned to an adult for support.

The support the adult then gave sat very much in the clueing’ domain of this framework: Look back in your books to help you’ or Where did I start in my example?’ were some examples heard. An extract from one case study below highlights this. Child A is six years old:

Then Child A came to question 6 which was slightly different (variation) as she was given the equation and asked to draw a representation for it. She sat and looked at the question for a few moments. 

When asked if she was ok, she explained that she needed to draw a representation like the ones on the sheet but there was no Stem to help her. She was asked if she thought a stem sentence would help. 

Child A thought for a few moments and said yes it would. She then looked at the other examples she had worked through in her book and practised orally saying the stem sentence for the equations. 

Once she had done this, she once again stopped and looked blankly at the space for representation. She was asked, could your stem sentence help you? Did the teacher show/​use anything in the lesson to help you? Did anything help you in the first two questions?”

The impact of adult talk was evident, and we started to work on what we said, as well as working with our teaching assistants on what they said, to move from clueing to prompting and then to pupils self-scaffolding.

After a short time, we noticed that some simple changes of language, for example from If you’re stuck try…’ to What could you use to help you?’ were having a clear impact on pupils’ independence.

Whilst initially met with walls of silence from pupils, this noticeably changed and pupils’ independence began to increase. The change in pupil A (and the adult in the classroom) can be seen below:

Self scaffolding 4

Child A looked at the problem with a puzzled expression and looked at the LSA.

Are you ok?

Child A:
i’m a bit stuck.

What might help you?

Child A:
We could read the question together

They both then read the question together.

Have you learnt anything that might help you earlier in our work? Have a think.

Child A:
Yes, I can see some money. There’s £10, £2 , £2, £2.

The child then added up the amounts and said there was £16.

Now that you know there is £16, how could this help you solve the problem?

Child A read the problem again.

Child A:
It’s wrong because I can see £16 but they said there is £13

The question Are you ok?’ was a pivotal moment in this interaction and appeared to prompt the pupil firstly to admit that they werestuck’ and then secondly acted as a cue that they would be supported to become independent in their thinking.


One teacher said:

Instead of modelling the answer, I’m modelling my thought process more.”

This change wasn’t just noticed by one teacher, and we have been able to map the language we have used to the framework provided by the EEF:

Self scaffolding 3

It is important to note that this didn’t happen overnight. It took time. The research evidence paved the way for the adults to mind their language’ helping to build better mathematical independence and motivation with the pupils that they worked with.

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