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Oracy in Mathematics

By Kara Earl – June 2024

 

During this academic year I have taken part in an Oracy Work Group with the Cambridge Maths Hub.  Even before I became head of the maths department, I was interested in the use of language and the importance of vocabulary. This work group has given me the opportunity talk to others about these ideas and to extend this to delve into ideas related to oracy more generally.

 

There are two reasons I think I am lucky in the timetable I teach, however I do want to preface this with I am fully aware a lot of teachers won’t agree! The first is that I get to teach out of my trained subject. Teaching history (a traditionally more oral subject) as well as my usual maths classes has opened my eyes to the different ways I naturally teach. While in history lessons I instinctively welcome discussion, encourage pupils to expand on each other’s answers and to disagree with each other, when I’m in the maths classroom I must make a conscious decision to do these things. The Oracy Work Group has made me aware of these differences. The most important thing I have taken from the work group is collaborative working. For example, encouraging pupils to work on solving equations together taking a step to do each. What was clear from the start was the need to add structure to these tasks to ensure each pupil got a chance to share. “You are going to tell me what your partner said” style ‘think-pair-share’ activities helped here.

 

The second reason I am lucky as a teacher is that I teach a lot of low prior attaining students. A large majority of the classes I teach will be heading towards grades 1-3 at GCSE (or below). Many of these students lack oracy skills in general, not just in maths! I quickly realised that they lacked the vocabulary to communicate clearly with their peers even if they had the other skills: “that thing that’s a bit like a square but not” might mean different things to different pupils! Is it a rhombus? Is it a rectangle? Whatever they mean, it clearly used up more of their cognitive load figuring it out than is desirable! So, I began to focus on using proper vocabulary in our lessons. Taking a discussion of the Frayer Model (sometimes adapting this to include “non-mathematical meanings” too) to explicitly teach the language I am using has increased the level of the pupils’ vocabulary too.


[Yr 10 student’s Frayer Model]

 

When we don’t use a common language, it is difficult to communicate. This meant I found myself a few steps behind where I thought I would be in creating an oracy-rich classroom. I thought maybe confidence was the issue, or even passivity, but I found that I couldn’t begin to increase discussion until we all agreed how to talk about it. The second difficulty has been carefully choosing tasks without the discussion feeling forced. I obviously want them to get certain ideas out of an activity but I also don’t want it to become a “guess what is in my head task”. Accepting that lessons, or parts of lessons, might go in a different direction was key here.


Pupils are still at the stage where they are much happier talking to me one-to-one than sharing more widely with the class. Overcoming this will be the next focus for me and my classes. I have begun to talk with my department about this too: in a recent department meeting we had a lovely discussion about all the ways we use the word “mass” and how this might be confusing.


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