A Brain for Mathematics or Literacy... or both?

NEWS 2 Aug 2021

For many generations, it was thought that children either have a brain for Mathematics or they don’t. Children who are assumed to lack talent in Mathematics are often thought to have greater abilities in the literacy and languages area, but how accurate are these assumptions?

“There can be a belief that children either have a brain for Mathematics or a brain for English and Literacy but I think these areas complement one another and students should work within their area of strength. The links between Literacy and Numeracy are closer than many people realise and they work together to support learning,” says Ms Melissa Allen, Head of Middle School Teaching and Learning at Haileybury.

Several studies have examined the connections between Mathematics and Literacy and have found good literacy skills play an important role in enabling students to gain a better understanding of Mathematics.

News - Maths or Literacy

A study at Purdue University in the US looked at Mathematics and reading development in young children and found that both skills underpin later school and career success. Educators in the UK also support the idea that Mathematics, Literacy and language go hand in hand, particularly in the younger years when educational foundations are being laid.

Discussing mathematical problems builds language skills as children have to understand the question they are being asked and then concisely articulate their answer.

“With worded Mathematics problems, children need to be able to read the questions and comprehend what they need to do. Once they have worked out the problem using their numeracy skills, they need to be able to express that in a written answer,” says Ms Allen.

“This involves reading and comprehension skills, analysing a question, picking out the main parts and pinpointing what they are being asked to explain or predict. Students might have to locate information, pull out relevant data from a dataset and look for detail to answer the problem. This all requires a strong foundation in literacy skills.”

Scenario-based mathematical questions that hold relevance for students further embed skills and learning and also call upon literacy skills.

“Maths students will often be given a scenario-based problem relevant to their life, such as, ‘how many ways are there to organise a camp group if student A can’t be with student B and student C doesn’t want to be with student B’. Those kinds of problems are something they are more likely to use later on outside the classroom and when learning is relevant, students are more engaged and are more likely to succeed,” says Ms Allen.

News - Maths or Literacy class
Melissa Allen believes the link between literacy and numeracy are closer than people realise.

Haileybury emphasises the dual importance of strong literacy and numeracy skills from ELC to Year 12.

“In Middle School for example, we enrol students in the Maths Olympiad which is a competition where they work through more abstract worded problems and see the relevance of Mathematics in day-to-day life.

“In class, students might adapt a recipe for a set amount of people coming to a dinner party which sees them use and adapt fractions and then re-write their recipe. Students might take on a design and landscaping project that brings together mathematical skills such as measurement, then Literacy as they have to write a proposal for their project,” says Ms Allen.

Literacy skills are reinforced during Years 7 and 8 through the Renaissance Reading Program that sees students spend a period each fortnight in their campus library. An online platform matches each student to a book based on their interests and reading level. Students read their allocated book, complete comprehension questions and write a review to share with fellow students.

“Our students will have a number of careers during their lifetime so we provide a core foundation of literacy and numeracy skills and transferable skills, like being adaptable and utilising appropriate technology. This breadth of skillset is key for students to navigate multiple careers,” says Ms Allen.