Introduction to literacy in Mathematics

Mathematical literacy and literacy in Mathematics

Literacy in Mathematics is essential for the development of students' mathematical literacy.

Literacy in Mathematics refers to the literate practices and strategies that enable students to:

  • develop mathematical understanding
  • communicate their mathematical reasoning.

Mathematical literacy is defined as:

"an individual's capacity to formulate, employ and interpret mathematics in a variety of contexts. It includes reasoning mathematically and using mathematical concepts, procedures, facts and tools to describe, explain and predict phenomena. It assists individuals to recognise the role that mathematics plays in the world and to make the well-founded judgements and decisions needed by constructive, engaged and reflective citizens." (OECD, 2018, p. 67) 

Improving students' literacy in Mathematics will help them to build connections between terminology, concepts, skills and representations, contributing to the development of Mathematical literacy.

In this video, Professor Wee Tiong Seah and Dr Lynda Ball discuss the importance of teaching literacy in Mathematics. They also outline the various ways teachers can engage students in using the language of Mathematics in the classroom.

Teacher prompts

  • How do you support your students to talk about their mathematical thinking?
  • In what ways do you encourage students to debate possible solutions to problems in Mathematics?
  • How do you ensure diverse learners are able to meet the complex demands of unpacking worded problems in Mathematics?

Literate demands in mathematics education

The ability to develop understanding and communicate mathematics requires students to be able to understand and correctly use:

  • notation
  • subject-specific language
  • conventions
  • representations.

Students need to be able to meet these literate demands when:

  • constructing reasoning or mathematical arguments
  • using mathematics in a range of contexts.

Mathematical language requires careful consideration, as many mathematical terms have alternative meanings to the same terms used in everyday context.

For example, the term 'mean' has a different 'meaning' in everyday language, where it might refer to 'angry' or 'convey', whereas in mathematics it refers to 'average'.

There is also considerable notation (e.g. m represents a pronumeral in algebra, while m represents metre in measurement), which needs to be learned, understood and used in context.

Students are also required to translate worded problems into mathematical symbols, carry out calculations and then interpret answers in the context of the original problem. As a result, they must communicate their answer using correct mathematical language, both as numbers and in sentence-form that makes sense in relation to context of the original problem.

Other literate demands include the ability to read, interpret and produce different textual forms, such as graphs, tables and mathematical diagrams.

Language is essential in mathematics learning to enable students to develop their understanding of mathematics and to communicate their reasoning, both verbally and in written form. 

Literacy in the Victorian Curriculum: Mathematics

Literacy is inherent in the Victorian Curriculum: Mathematics where students are:

  • developing the ability to read and understand mathematical language and representations
  • using mathematical language and representations to communicate problems and solutions
  • using mathematics in a range of contexts.

Proficiencies in the curriculum

The Mathematical proficiencies of Understanding, Fluency, Problem Solving and Reasoning rely on literacy as students build knowledge and understanding, reason mathematically and make connections across topics.

A focus on the need to consider "the 'why' and 'how' of mathematics" (VCAA, n.d.) highlights an emphasis on sense-making, which is supported through reading, discussion, writing and reasoning.

Literacy is embedded in many of the practices exemplified in the proficiencies. For example:

  • describe their thinking mathematically
  • interpret mathematical information
  • recall definitions and regularly use facts
  • use mathematics to represent unfamiliar or meaningful situations
  • design investigations and plan their approaches
  • explain their thinking
  • make inferences about data or the likelihood of events
  • compare and contrast related ideas and explain their choices (VCAA,  n.d.).
  • PISA for Development Assessment and Analytical Framework: Reading, Mathematics and Science, Preliminary Version, OECD Publishing, Paris. Retrieved from OECD iLibrary
  • Victorian Curriculum and Assessment Authority (VCAA). (n.d.). Victorian Curriculum Foundation–10: Mathematics. Retrieved from Maths curriculum - Rationale and aim