Comprehension in English and Maths: musings of a maths specialist

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There has been a lot of talk in recent months, both in the press and on social media, about the word gap and the new Ofsted Framework, now being applied in schools across England. Given Ofsted’s focus on improving the quality of education, and the evidence of a significant word gap in UK schools, it seems to me that comprehension is key.  

This thought reminds me of some work a colleague and I undertook a couple of years ago. With my maths expertise, and her knowledge of English teaching strategies, we looked at comprehension across our two subjects. Below is a summary of what we discussed.

Reading comprehension is the ability to read text, process and understand its meaning. Reading and verbal comprehension involve complex cognitive processes in which many elements interact, including: vocabulary and prior knowledge; grammatical understanding; inference; and working memory. Language is the driving force behind successful comprehension. I believe that the same skills and the same strategies are utilised in successful mathematical reasoning and problem solving. This is because a significant proportion of reasoning situations actually rely heavily on language skills, for example, processing, thinking and articulating. If we read and process information in any type of problem accurately, think logically (which almost always uses language), formulate ideas and articulate them clearly, then this supports reasoning and deeper understanding.

The teaching and learning of maths is not about computing, algorithms or indeed memorizing facts. It is about teaching children to understand the meaning of symbols, numbers and relationships. It is about connections, between familiar or new ideas, to maths a child has already met and how this relates to them and is applied to real life. This is the same in English.

We can, therefore, view reasoning as comprehension in the context of maths. The terminology is different, of course, as each subject has technical or subject specific language. But, there are huge overlaps and if we set aside the different terminology to explore strategies, this becomes very clear.  It might be helpful for maths and English subject leaders to think of reasoning in this way, particularly when collaborating to design their curriculum.

There are clear benefits of a cross-curricular approach to developing comprehension:

  • Discussion and sharing of ideas often helps to clarify focus and content
  • Comprehension then develops in a purposeful way across both of these core subjects
  • Working together as middle leaders has the potential to make more of an impact on influencing change or development in practice, as well as saving time
  • It strengthens learning and teaching by focusing on useful strategies across any ‘comprehension’ situation.

In order to improve comprehension across a school, it needs to have a more purposeful focus, more so than merely finding the right answer to a maths problem or answering a reading comprehension question relating to a given text extract. This might mean that subject leaders bring comprehension to the forefront, focusing on developing children’s comprehension skills across the subjects. After all, performance on maths word problems is strongly related to reading comprehension, and fluent technical reading improves both those skills.

It’s important to ensure that teachers are given opportunities to develop subject confidence in teaching verbal reasoning and that the interrogation of the meaning of words in their broader context is given priority status. Teachers need to be supported in making connections between the skills required to answer reading comprehension questions and word problems in maths. They also need to be encouraged to allow opportunities for children to apply and practise the word meaning strategies learned in the English lesson across maths and the wider curriculum.

There are a number of specific strategies to improve comprehension that can be employed in teaching across the curriculum. Research studies on reading and comprehension have shown that highly proficient readers utilise a number of different strategies to comprehend various types of texts, strategies that can also be used by less proficient readers in order to improve their comprehension. Good guided reading is the perfect vehicle for teaching, modelling and applying comprehension strategies such as inference and deduction. But, how many teachers use guided reading techniques for maths problem solving? 

My closing thought comes from the aforementioned English specialist: “Learning to read mainly sits within English lessons, however reading to learn spans the breadth of the school curriculum…”

5 ways to use comprehension across English and maths in your school:

  1. Identify as a staff where weaknesses lie in comprehension, and what strategies need to be focused on
  2. Develop a whole-school approach to comprehension and problem solving, through curriculum design  – meet regularly to discuss and share ideas across subjects
  3. Focus on developing children’s comprehension skills across the subjects, not just in English
  4. Give teachers opportunities to develop subject confidence in teaching verbal reasoning
  5. Ensure good guided reading is used for teaching across all subjects, modelling and applying comprehension strategies.

Written by Louise Pennington, Professional Development Leader for maths at Oxford University Press.