Knowledge Repertoires, Case Studies

Ed Cuthbertson explores the relation between mathematics and literacy.

As a maths and science teacher I have learnt that literacy is more than sentence construction. It is a complex understanding of how text, image and convention interplay to produce meaning. In maths students struggle because they actually don’t understand a number sentence. They are not sure as to what mathematical symbols really mean. They are fine with process and can say “oh this is the symbol that means I do this” they don’t think of it as “ah this means this”. That may sound oblique and reading back on it I am sure to confuse some readers but it really is a case of students think that symbols “do” things to numbers. An example is the = symbol that students think means “do something to”. This means that the number sentence 2+2=4 doesn’t “equal” 4, the student thinks that the equal sign does something to the 2+2 and transform it into a 4. I have heard students say the number goes through the sausage factory and transform. This means that they have no concept of equal, which means that math will forever be a mystery. There is so much language, grammar, syntax and symbols in maths that it is its own language that interplays with our own understanding of numeracy. Graphs, statistics and charts are all forms of multimodality that aim to inform and interplay with words to tell its readers a story. The issue for our teachers is to understand what language, grammar, modalities are being expressed so that they may guide students to some semblance of understanding. Mathematics is a universal language but if the symbols are not known then it is all magic.

Students enjoy manipulatives with maths as it gives a conceptual hook for them to hang their understanding on. The more that a concept can be made concrete the more students will be able to understand the language that is being used with it. This modality is important in the maths classroom as simple explanations and work examples can help consolidate the process but do nothing to set the understanding. In order to understand a concept it needs to be played/toyed with from multiple perspectives and thought of through a variety of lenses. Multimodality offers different lenses for concepts and ideas to be examined through. This way students may speak the language of mathematics and have some chance of understanding it.