Supporting students’ literacy skills in the maths curriculum

Pam Currie

Pam was a lecturer for over 20 years at Stow and latterly Glasgow Kelvin College, initially teaching journalism, then social sciences and finally maths (a journey which included joining in with a National Certificate Engineering class to study Core Maths before studying an Open University degree in the subject). Pam is now a full-time secondary maths teacher at Ardrossan Academy in North Ayrshire. Pam previously worked as a Senior Education Officer for the General Teaching Council for Scotland.


What was the main focus of your professional learning?

Exploring methods to better support students’ literacy skills in the context of the maths curriculum – specifically their ability to interpret contextualised questions and articulate responses

Why did you decide to engage in this professional learning?

I decided to undertake this professional learning (PL) following professional dialogue with colleagues about issues that learners had with the National 5 Applications of Maths course and the “wordy” nature of the N5 Numeracy unit, particularly with learners with low levels of literacy or other barriers such as English being their second language. I had listened to a Mr Barton Maths podcast interview with Alex Quigley and subsequently read his book, ‘Closing the Vocabulary Gap’, which prompted me to reflect on the language that I use in class and how I might support learners to develop their literacy skills in a subject-specific context.

What did your professional learning involve?

The PL involved a series of four sessions with an N5 Applications of Maths cohort, using different literacy tools and strategies to support the development of discipline-specific literacy skills. The main focus was on past paper questions. I encouraged learners to unpack these questions and to use “mathematical talk” to identify the skills needed and approaches/strategies that could be used. They were also asked to identify the stages of answering a question and the working that would need to be recorded for full marks.

We also used Frayer diagrams to explore key concepts around statistics and this is a tool that I will definitely return to in future, especially when recapping or revising key terms.

What was the impact of your professional learning?

While the activities met with a mixed response from learners – some of whom found them very difficult and were resistant to doing an activity that was not “straightforward sums’ – most developed a greater level of understanding and confidence in their own skills for the areas of the curriculum we focused on. The activity was cut short by the lockdown but I intend to develop the materials further next session.

"…literacy is about much more than being able to read the words on the page – it’s also about being able to articulate an idea and explain your thinking, which are key skills in maths and numeracy."

The initial podcast and reading made me reflect on how I use language with my learners and in particular, how I present key subject-specific terminology, particularly when that terminology may have a different meaning in more general use (such as ‘mean’ and ‘mode’ in statistics). The subsequent activity made me realise that literacy is about much more than being able to read the words on the page – it’s also about being able to articulate an idea and explain your thinking, which are key skills in maths and numeracy.

I realised that even though learners know how to “do” a particular problem they may have a very superficial understanding of the concepts and struggle to apply these or even to understand the question in another context. This will impact the way I teach this course in future – in particular my strategies for revising and consolidating knowledge – and this will impact my learners.

I will share this with my colleagues, and hopefully in the longer term this will produce learners who are more confident not only in their numeracy skills but in applying these skills in a ‘real world’ context, which will bring a benefit to employers and the wider community

Professional Standards for Lecturers in Scotland’s Colleges in action

2.2. Learning, teaching and assessment theory and approaches
This PL is relevant to the standard 2.2 Learning, teaching and assessment theory and approaches, in particular strategies to support learning in a range of learning environments and critically evaluating the breadth of resources in the delivery and assessment of the curriculum to meet student needs. I adapted and developed new resources in order to meet the needs of a diverse range of learners at this level.