Literacy in Mathematics – Creating Problem Solvers

Last year my school had a OFSTED trial inspection. Whilst the maths team recieved favourable feedback the inspectors noted a need for a focus on whole school literacy. Because of this I was asked to demonstrate how we develop student’s literacy in mathematics.

Literacy in Mathematics

By developing student’s literacy in mathematics we aim to give all students the communication skills they need to become excellent problem solvers. To us, literacy in mathematics means to develop a student’s structured speaking, vocabulary, writing and reading with the intention of helping them to solve mathematical problems.

In this blog I will share some practical advice my department uses to develop all student’s literacy in mathematics. Please do use the feedback form to share your own approaches to developing student’s literacy in mathematics.

Structured Speaking

Students who have difficulty writing in a mathematics lesson often find it easier to say what they think. We provide opportunities for students to engage in dialogue that supports, deepens and challenges their understanding.

These opportunities arise from questions posed throughout the various phases of the lesson. We use the starter as a reminder of important keywords relevant to the topic. In the main phase, we use rich tasks to encourage discussion that will connect today’s learning to other aspects of mathematics. In addition, the plenary presents a deeper level of questioning so students extend each other’s conceptual understanding.

Through developing active listening skills and turn-taking students learn how to question and challenge both their peer’s understanding and the teacher explanations. We build on this by encouraging students to ask lots of questions.


The positive effects of an increased vocabulary and the ability to speak the language of mathematics is essential to understanding. Therefore, we believe teaching for an increased vocabulary with definitions placed in context will help students to internalise the concepts and terms they encounter.

We increase student’s vocabulary by writing the words on the board in a prominent position as they are encountered. Students use these key words to create, refine and present their solution to problems.


We develop student’s writing by modelling written methods within a clear writing frame on the main teacher’s board. We leave completed examples on the board while students attempt a similar problem.

Students use mini whiteboards to form, refine and present a written record of their understanding to a problem. Teachers act on this formative assessment by address misconceptions or progressing onto deeper level questions.

We use faculty development meetings to share best practice with writing frames. For instance, using ratio notation to solve problems involving compound measures and percentages.


Teaching comprehension is a vital part of the mathematics curriculum. Worded mathematical problems contain a multiple concepts along with text that contains a mixture of symbols, diagrams, tables and units. Therefore, comprehending a worded problem can often be more difficult than applying the mathematics.

Mathematics is not only about learning facts or procedures it is about teaching students how to interpret a mixture of symbols, diagrams and keywords. Making these connections and understanding how they form part of a bigger problem is key to applying the learnt mathematical skills.

We do this by:

  • reading out text to the class and highlighting key words or phrases as they appear.
  • modelling how to extract key words and information from the text to the represent the problem algebraically or as a diagram.
  • providing a high level of exposure to these types of problems.

About Mr Mathematics

My name is Jonathan Robinson and I passionate about teaching mathematics. I am currently Head of Maths in the South East of England and have been teaching for over 15 years. I am proud to have helped teachers all over the world to continue to engage and inspire their students with my lessons.

Relevant Links to Developing Literacy in Mathematics

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Teaching mathematics for a growth mindset is central to how I teach maths. It is always in the forefront of my mind when I plan a new lesson.

2 thoughts on “Literacy in Mathematics – Creating Problem Solvers

  1. Hi,

    I agree that developing literacy in mathematics is so important! Would you be able to provide us with some samples of word problems that you use with your students?

    Many thanks.

  2. Hello Susan
    Almost every lesson on the website includes worded, problem solving questions. They occur mostly in the plenary and in the latter questions on the independent learning slides.

    Please do check out the free resources page for a good sample.

    Hope this helps.

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