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Mathematical language

In this K–2 numeracy project a major focus was to make teachers aware of the significance of the language they use when introducing mathematical concepts.

Aboriginal education workers and parents explained to teachers that mathematics was described and used differently at home and at school. Teachers used this knowledge to assist students in the transfer of their home language of mathematics to the language of Western mathematics used in the syllabus and classroom.

Teachers were encouraged to actively listen to the language and learning processes that students used to express their mathematical knowledge. When they had identified the language used by students, teachers were able to discuss alternative words, clarify their meaning and operation, and negotiate their translation into the classroom mathematical language of the Mathematics K–6 Syllabus.

In this project teachers were asked to focus on the Number strand of the Mathematics K–6 Syllabus. They used the Learning Framework in Number from the Count Me in Too project and its associated Schedule for Early Number Assessment (SENA) to identify a starting point for all students in each class. The parents of Aboriginal students, in particular, were invited to attend the school to discuss the project and its objectives, the critical role that they would play in assisting their children, and their involvement in ongoing discussions about local cultural and contextual community knowledge.

Making links with the community was a challenge, especially for those schools without an Aboriginal educator on staff. Regional Aboriginal Consultants, Aboriginal Community Liaison Officers and local Aboriginal Education Consultative Group (AECG) members were vital in assisting teachers to identify local community leaders.

Language of mathematics

Students bring to school different experiences in mathematics as well as a variety of language terms to express mathematical operations. However, the Mathematics K–6 Syllabus uses, from Early Stage 1, a consistent language based on Western mathematical terminology. This is to ensure that the language is consistent throughout the K–10 compulsory years of schooling.

The Snail Plan is a useful model for teaching mathematical language. It is a 10-step plan developed by Bernadine Yeatman at Yarrabah State School, Far North Queensland. It guides the teacher in identifying the student’s home mathematical language and carefully introducing Western mathematical terminology.

 Snail Plan

Diagram Snail Plan   (PDF 116KB)

The Snail Plan

  1. Check students’ prior understanding relating to the mathematical concept that will be taught.

  2. Setup ‘Discovery Experiences’ with limited teacher talk.  Encourage students to talk to each other.

  3. Observe and record students’ language behaviours and strategies.

  4. Extract other words students might know and use (eg What other words can you use for ‘spin’?).

  5. Share other Standard Australian English words that the students might know and use (eg I know some other words we can use for ‘spin’)

  6. Discuss and negotiate shared meaning for words used (eg We’ve agreed the word ‘spin‘ will mean….).

  7. Introduce the specific mathematical name (eg In maths the word we use for ‘spin’ is …).

  8. Provide new experiences for students to practise using the language for the concept.

  9. Check for understanding by:

    –  observing and recording the language, behaviours and strategies used

    –  discussing thoughts and understandings of the concept in a group

    –  having students demonstrate their understandings of the concept with their peers

  10. Reflect and evaluate the learning (‘Two-way sharing’).

The goal is to have the students internalise the mathematical language that is consistent with syllabus and subject demands.

This project used the NSW Department of Education and Training project Count Me in Too and work of Denise Angelo funded by the Australian Government Department of Education, Science and Training.

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