Literacy’s role in boosting maths outcomes

Written by: Maria Howard | Published:
Image: iStock

Could literacy be the key to progress in mathematics? Maria Howard reports on her work to support middle and lower achieving pupils

There is a familiar conversation I have heard numerous maths teachers have in different schools in very different contexts.

They will express their frustration that their pupils are failing to make progress in formal assessments, despite being able to follow the curriculum and complete calculations independently in class. Teachers will then recognise that their pupils’ inability to read or comprehend what the questions are asking of them is a huge barrier to them demonstrating the mathematics they are capable of.

In its guidance, Mathematics GCSE Subject Content and Assessment Objectives, the Department for Education (DfE) states that GCSE mathematics examinations should enable pupils to “comprehend, interpret and communicate mathematical information in a variety of forms appropriate to the information and context”.

Also, various studies have demonstrated that a pupil’s level of literacy has a significant impact on their progress in maths. Reading for pleasure has been shown to improve progress in mathematics (Sullivan & Brown, 2013) and reducing the complexity of language in assessments has been shown to particularly improve the attainment of certain key groups in the subject, including low and middle-ability learners (Abedi & Lord, 2010).

Subject-specific strategies are needed to develop vocabulary in order to improve reading comprehension (Taylor et al, 2009; Monroe & Orme, 2010). These strategies should involve early intervention wherever possible to maximise their impact (DfE, 2012).

I have always been passionate about closing the gap in education for pupils who face educational disadvantage. Having worked in schools in both India and Peru where children faced extreme poverty and hardship, I have seen first-hand the difference an education can make to someone’s life chances.

For me, working in a school in “a challenging context” is a privilege. Now in my eighth year of teaching I can honestly say that I love my job at Hyde Community College, both as a classroom practitioner and as a middle leader. When the chance came up for me to enrol on the Teaching Leaders Fellows programme I saw it as a unique opportunity to not only develop myself as a leader, but also to increase the impact that I had in narrowing the gap in attainment for the pupils at our school who faced a wide range of educational disadvantages on a day-to-day basis.

As a member of the mathematics department, and also as someone with whole-school responsibilities for numeracy and year 7 intervention, I am in a unique position to focus my Impact Initiative for Teaching Leaders on improving progress in mathematics by improving the mathematical literacy of our pupils in the subject.

My overall goal is: “To increase the percentage of Level 3 pupils making two-plus sub-levels of progress in mathematics in year 7 from 57 per cent in 2015 to 63 per cent in 2017 – and the percentage of Level 4c/b pupils from 63 per cent in 2015 to 68 per cent in 2017 by the use of literacy strategies within mathematics lessons.”

Our key strategies

The key strategies I have implemented to support me in achieving this goal include the following:

  • Assessment and analysis of our year 7 students’ knowledge and understanding of key mathematical vocabulary. According to the Education Endowment Foundation, there is a clear need to identify the extent to which comprehension is affected by understanding subject-specific vocabulary when considering reading comprehension strategies.
  • Development of classroom strategies collaboratively with the maths department to improve mathematical vocabulary and communication.
  • Close tracking of progress in mathematics in year 7 to identify pupils who are failing to make progress in the subject in relation to their key stage 2 data. Targeted pupils are then being more closely assessed to see if additional support with their mathematical literacy can enable them to accelerate their progress.
  • In conjunction with this, I conduct one-to-one meetings with key members of staff who have an impact on year 7 progress, including the numeracy and literacy higher level teaching assistants on my team and members of the mathematics department, to review progress and develop additional intervention strategies where necessary.
  • Increase pupil awareness of the importance of literacy in mathematics through displays, super learning days, mathematical activity days and form time activities.
  • Increase staff awareness of how developing literacy is key to improving progress in any subject through whole-school and department-specific CPD and the creation of cross-curricular vocabulary resources and displays.
  • Continuous review of the impact of these new strategies so that changes can be made when necessary.

My Impact Initiative is now in its third term. So far a significant impact of the intervention strategies seems to have been on our middle-ability learners entering year 7 with a 4c or 4b in mathematics, with 76 per cent now on track to make the progress we have targeted (compared to the goal I set of 68 per cent).

For our pupils entering year 7 on a Level 3 the picture is less clear. At present there is no noticeable improvement in progress for these pupils as a result of the literacy intervention strategies, although the end-of-year data may present a different picture.
It could be that the intervention strategies employed are more accessible to middle-ability learners compared to lower-ability learners, something I will investigate in the next academic year.

The progress I have seen to date for our middle-ability learners is extremely pleasing and would seem to support the fact that tackling literacy in mathematics can have a significant impact on progress for key groups.

If we as educators are determined to narrow the attainment gap for our pupils who face educational disadvantages it is crucial that we consider all the possible barriers to learning that they may face. Tackling literacy within mathematics is one way to do this.
You are welcome to access some of the resources I have developed – see further information.

  • Maria Howard is numeracy and intervention coordinator at Hyde 11 to 18 Community College. She is also a 2015 Fellow on the Teaching Leaders Fellows programme. She tweets @MrsHsNumeracy

Maria Howard’s resources


  • Mathematics GCSE: Subject content and assessment objectives, DfE, 2013:
  • Social Inequalities in Cognitive Scores at Age 16: The role of reading, Sullivan & Brown, 2013
  • The Language Factor in Mathematics Tests, Abedi and Lord, 2010
  • Literacy and Numeracy Catch-up Strategies, DfE, 2012:
  • Using Explicit Instruction to Promote Vocabulary Learning for Struggling Readers, Taylor et al, 2009
  • Developing Mathematical Vocabulary, Monroe & Orme, 2010

Teaching Leaders

Teaching Leaders is a leadership development programme for high-potential middle leaders. Teaching Leaders is currently recruiting their 2016 cohort of middle leaders for the programme. To register your interest, visit


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