I work in a large primary school consisting of children from all sorts of backgrounds and cultures right in the heart of Nottingham. In fact, there are a total of 52 different languages spoken at school, and even with EAL training, EAL specialist teaching assistants, and bilingual staff, our job has not been made any easier with a shift in the curriculum and a greater emphasis on vocabulary. However, it is a challenge I relish and one in which the children in school constantly astound me. Yes it takes a huge amount of effort to get children to make the expected standard in their second language, some of whom have only just arrived from overseas, but it is possible for many of them. We should salute all of those children who try their very best, even when they fall short because, as a nation, speaking two languages is not something we can proudly call an English tradition, yet we expect so much from the children who have only just arrived on our shores.
Interestingly, even beyond the KS2 Reading SATs, vocabulary is becoming more and more fundamental in all areas of the curriculum. The 2018 Reasoning Paper 2 and 3 last year was incredibly word heavy with a large range of unexpected words. Contexts included: going to concerts, measuring alligators, Earth and Mercury, big cats, collecting eggs, The Angel of the North, vegetable gardens and sponsored running events! All this even before they needed to understand the typical mathematical definitions (eg symmetrical, equivalent, sequence, symbols, vertices, translated, improper et al). @tHE_zEEN shared the words needed in last years SATs here. With this in mind, there is a huge amount of vocabulary for children to know and Rising Stars have released a fantastic free ebook which breaks this down from Early Years to Year 6 here. Are every year group ensuring that every child leaves with this knowledge and understanding? Are we assessing or monitoring it or just hoping some of it sticks and leaving it for another mountain for Year 6 staff?
Whilst teaching maths last year, I noticed how often I was defining and discussing maths vocabulary during lessons, often going off on tangents trying to put one word into a variety of contexts or examples. This led me to consider other ways for children to recognise these words. I decided to go ahead and write five short stories with mathematical vocabulary used throughout. This placed the concepts in a real-life context and allowed children, first and foremost, to try to identify them and then match definitions to the vocabulary inside the stories. For children needing more support, these words had already been identified, making the process quicker but just as challenging. Needless to say, children were incredibly excited to be reading stories in a maths lesson but also grateful for the language and context which acted as a key to open up the aspects of maths they had been struggling with. This freed children up to use their competent arithmetic skills to solve problems they could not comprehend. There are lots of resources to support maths facts and vocabulary. Sophie B’s Y6 Knowledge Organiser is a great start and I still use the old mental maths tests every now and then to help children recall the facts and vocabulary they should know. To support in the understanding of this vocabulary, reading these words in various contexts (as well as continuing to use as many mathematical examples as possible) allow children to make links beyond the maths world. Words such as decrease, adjacent, surface area, dimensions or cylinder can all be placed in a context which children understand rather than just as isolated terms. There are terms with multiple meanings (negative, take away, mean etc) which can cause further problems and the importance of getting our own language right is fundemental is preventing misconceptions. A useful article here by Third Space Learning discusses this in more detail.
We read information texts in science, geography and history but how much reading do we do in maths? I decided to write a series of ‘Maths Vocabulary Reading Comprehensions’ to support the children in class. These are entirely original fictional stories to contextualise the words. We used them like we would in whole
class reading and the children loved them! It allowed them to work together to support their understanding, identify and revise key vocabulary, and understand them in context.
Why stop there? Why not read about the history of the metric system? Why not study Descartes and the idea of mapping, Florence Nightingale and the importance of using statistics or the work of Pythagoras? Let us read the biographies of Alan Turing and Ada Lovelace. Let us make maths more than just about numbers. Sign up and download all 5 differentiated stories HERE!
We’re now looking into creating a series of easy to administer, multiple-choice quizzes for year groups to check children’s knowledge of mathematical vocabulary. We’ll let you know as soon as they’re done!