As a primary teacher and lover of all subjects, I have often borrowed and adapted strategies from English to use in mathematics lessons, for example, mind maps, Frayer charts, ‘here, hidden, head’ questions and vocabulary strategies. Some of these, and others, I have mentioned in previous blogs and resources What will my students like? ask them, Floorstorming in mathematics, Mathematics: Everyone’s second language, It’s about time, Mathoo!
Utilising strategies that work well in other areas, such as English, can be useful in mathematics where the focus is now more on how you know something more than what you know. Students who are working mathematically are able to communicate and provide reasoning for their chosen strategies and can justify why their solution works. This focus on language encourages more talk in the mathematics classroom, particularly from students, so it seems fitting to use strategies from English.
“New concept, familiar strategy. New strategy, familiar concept.”
When I worked with Peter Gould and Chris Francis at the NSW Department of Education, I remember them often using the phrase above when leading mathematics professional learning with schools. This is sound advice and I still adhere to it today. When I introduce a new concept to students, I use a strategy they are familiar with so that something is ‘known’ for them, there is some level of comfort-zone. Or if I want to introduce a new strategy (like NumberTalks) I’ll do it with a familiar, or easier mathematics concept. This way the focus is on trialling the new strategy not trying to cope with difficult mathematics as well. Using a familiar strategy from English to mathematics can help with this and also provide students with connections across subject areas in how we make sense of information.
Last week on Twitter @LewisNewman12 posted this great tweet about flipping the borrowing of strategies where he utilised a mathematics strategy, Number Talks, in his English classroom and coined the nice phrase #LetterTalk. I think this is a terrific idea that promotes quality questioning by students as they develop the important skills of communicating – speaking and listening, as part of classroom discourse. It is also an opportunity for the teacher to conduct some formative moment-in-time assessment of students’ understandings and possible misunderstandings or misconceptions.
Another idea for a LetterTalk would be to focus on punctuation. Provide students with a sentence without the punctuation and have them discuss where the comma should go and why. There are a number of funny ones you can find with a Google search, here are a few of my favourites:
- “I like cooking my family and friends.”
- “Let’s eat grandma.”
- “While dad was eating the cat and the dog tried to steal is food!”
In reply to the LetterTalk tweet, @stephvchambers posted her adaptation of Which One Doesn’t Belong (#wodb) using words for an English lesson. It’s a great starting point or launch for a lesson. I would add that when creating #wodb groups of words or pictures it is important that you try to find as many connections as possible so that there are multiple solutions for students to explore and discover. When there are more possible solutions, you create a need for students to justify why they are correct or to debate if there could be more than one solution. For @stephvhcambers’ example (which is great) I would maybe like ‘comfortable’ changed to a word starting with ‘v’ like variable or vegetable as this then makes ‘imaginable’ the odd one out (an alternate solution to the ‘ible’ word being the odd one out).
A note though, whenever you transfer a strategy from one context or content area to another, you should still think about its use and purpose and modify the strategy where necessary to support the new area. I mention this as some strategies from English don’t always fit well with mathematics. Some ‘skimming and scanning’ techniques such as ‘key word’ searching do not work in mathematics. This is due to the fact that in mathematical word problems it’s the smaller words (connectives, conjunctions and prepositions) that are important (including their order). These words are often overlooked in English when skimming for meaning but are paramount in comprehending a problem in mathematics.
It’s wonderful how social media can be supportive of current and quality teaching strategies and ideas from across the world. Hearing about teachers and educators trying out the same strategies makes it feel like we are teaching in one big classroom together, @LewisNewmans12 is in Hong Kong and @stephvchambers is in Scotland, and I’m here in Australia. I encourage you to follow teachers, educators, and researchers on Twitter as you often find golden ideas like these and it hopefully will encourage you to share your classroom stories too.