Let’s Talk About Maths: The importance of maths language

Maths has a language all of its own, sometimes it feels more overwhelming than the process of the maths itself. Let’s explore maths language, how we use it, why we use it and most importantly how you can boost your child’s knowledge of it.

Galileo once said that ‘Maths is the language the universe was written in’, yet so many of us as adults are uncomfortable or unfamiliar with the language surrounding maths. This reflects the style of teaching we received as children, along with the changing expectations being placed upon children today. Now children are given maths language every day, particularly if your child’s school or your home schooling approach is Maths Mastery. The language is used frequently in the classroom, however, I have rarely experienced the explicit teaching of maths language, children are assumed to pick it up as they go. Just like any other subject, maths language needs to be taught and explained, this reduces the chances of confusion and increases the likelihood of children using maths talk.

Why is Maths Language so Important?

I am regularly asked this by parents, they ask me questions like ‘What difference does it make if I say borrowing and my child says exchanging?’ On the surface the action being taken to answer the subtraction is fundamentally the same, however the language change can confuse a child in relation to the processes that they are using. I was taught to borrow, but, when do we give it back? We don’t, this is why mathematically we are going through the process of exchanging. This idea of swapping, clarifies the process for your child, they understand why they are doing what they are doing. This in turn  helps your child to explain their maths, identify avoidable mistakes and take part in meaningful mathematical discussions. 

Maths language also helps a child to decipher what a question is asking of them, many of us have experienced children being excellent at a maths skill when given in numerical form, however, they find worded questions far more complicated. This is due to the maths language being used and their unfamiliarity with it. To improve problem solving and reasoning skills in our children, we need to improve their use and understanding of maths language. This language is the key to unlocking the clues to solving the problem. We wouldn’t dream of asking children to write about the circulatory system, without first explaining it to them, including all the technical language, yet language is rarely taught to children in a mathematical context.

Maths also has its own meanings for language that we use in other situations, for example product. In maths a product is the answer to a multiplication, however, in a non mathematical environment a product is something available to purchase from a shop. Multiple is another example, in maths a multiple is a number that can be divided by another number a certain number of times equally, in the rest of the world it means more than one.

How can I encourage the use of Maths language?

There are a number of different ways you can achieve this, whether your child goes to school or you teach them at home. Firstly, a maths dictionary. These are amazing and provide simple explanations for what a word means. This will increase your confidence in using the correct vocabulary, you can also explore the dictionary with your child. Each area of maths has specific language, your child could create a poster to generate vocabulary for each area of maths they work on. We wouldn’t think twice about using word banks for English, this is exactly the same process.

Once you have established the vocabulary for a given area of maths, make sure you are using it when you are supporting learning. This will further increase the familiarity of the language and make using it second nature to your child.

If you are learning at home, make use of a Maths Journal. At the end of a session ask your child to complete their journal. Writing prompts can be:

Today I learned about…

One problem I solved was…

I did it by…

The golden rules of … are…

If an alien landed I would teach them how to… by…

These simple steps will help me to…

By discussing these prompts, then encouraging writing, maths language will become second nature and your child will become more confident with explaining their maths. By being able to explain maths processes confidently your child will find problem solving and reasoning far easier to access. 

This is great…but I hate maths

I am often told by parents that they are no good at maths and their child follows them, or that maths isn’t their thing, or maths makes them feel uncomfortable. This generates negative connotations surrounding maths within the home. This type of maths talk is detrimental to you and your child. You have defeated yourself before approaching the work with your child and your child will pick up on your feelings towards maths. They will then often develop a similar relationship to you with the subject. Positive maths talk is far more powerful. Here are some ways to change what you say:

I hate maths!  Can become: Maths was never my favourite but I always tried hard.

Maths is hard!  Sounds better as: Sometimes maths gives us challenges, but there is always a solution!

I’m not a maths person. Becomes:  Everyone can do maths, just at different speeds.

I hated maths at school too!  Can look like this:   … was my favourite subject, but I always did my best in Maths.

Creating positive dialogue around maths, makes maths more approachable. This encourages our children to try. When they try, most are surprised by what they are able to achieve. It is important to remember that words are powerful, moreso when they are used negatively. By opening a maths conversation we open the world of maths and it becomes a less daunting place for everyone, giving everybody the opportunity to release their inner mathematician.

If you are interested in developing your child’s maths language skills, register your interest for our upcoming group maths sessions here.

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