I am no expert in literacy but I have worked in mathematics education for nearly 30 years and have witnessed the effects of poor literacy on people’s ability to comprehend and decode mathematical problems.

Often this is most apparent in the courses that are tailored to cater for our less mathematically able students. In an attempt to contextualise problems, we surround them with words. So, a person who struggles with their literacy can then also be locked out from success in numeracy because they are unable to decode what mathematical process is required.

Literacy and mathematical success are inextricably linked.

I have taught in a range of educational facilities (primary school, high school, college, TAFE, public and private) in NSW, Tasmania and the Northern Territory. I have had the privilege of working with students and their families from a range of backgrounds, and, whilst some are more jaded than others, all, when given the chance and the tools, want to succeed and take great joy in learning. For some, this process is much more difficult than others.

We need to employ tools to enable students to decode the language around mathematics.

In a recent piece on the SBS news, the news team spoke to a maths teacher in Campbelltown in Sydney. He worked as the Head of Mathematics at a High School which had markedly increased the students’ results in the NAPLAN numeracy testing. One of the key ways this was done was by explicitly teaching and decoding the mathematical language. This focus on the literacy of mathematics had a significant impact on the understanding of, and success in, mathematics for the students of this school – many of whom come from non-English speaking backgrounds.

This points to something.

To improve our student’s numeracy, we need to help them decode the language. To raise our numeracy results, we need to ensure the students can access the language.

Literacy issues need to be tackled early. In some cases, this may require support from professionals with expert knowledge which goes beyond that of the classroom teacher. This will have the most positive effect if it is able to be accessed early. The longer it is left, the more defences are built up and the harder it is to break down the resistance. Most students learn quickly how to hide their deficiencies and often poor behaviour is used as a defence mechanism to prevent exposure.

An investment in improving early literacy is one worth making because it opens doors for the student in the future; not just in literacy but in numeracy as well.

Teachers also need to break the language down for our students in our mathematics lessons. We need to be explicitly teaching students the language of mathematics along with the processes. Students need exposure to the words and phrases of mathematics and their meanings.

Whilst I strongly believe this, I also believe that the assessment of what is success in numeracy should be looked at so that students who do have literacy issues are not automatically excluded from experiencing success in numeracy as well. Success can do wonders for engagement and persistence.

Jane Morrison is a Hobart-based high-school maths teacher who considers herself fortunate to have been able to spend her working career in education. She has worked with many incredible young people and watched them grow in confidence and enthusiasm towards mathematics. At home, she shares her life with husband David and their four precious children; Hannah, Bek, Daniel and John.

Here, Jane writes for the Communicating: The Heart of Literacy initiative – find out more at chattermatters.com.au.

This article was first published in The Mercury on 10th April 2018.