Reading and writing mathematics

Els De Geest | View as single page | Feedback/Impact

Reading and writing mathematics

Much attention is given in schools to supporting learners to read and write, whether this is in mother tongue or in learning a foreign language.

Far less attention is given to support learners with reading and writing using the language of mathematics.

Not being fluent in reading and writing mathematics can have serious consequences for a learner's understanding and attainment. Lack of fluency is not necessarily related to the 'ability' of learners to do mathematics.

Fluency is part of mathematical literacy which also includes verbal communication skills and is described by Meltzer (2001) as:

The ability of a person to use reading, writing, speaking, listening to learn [mathematics and mathematical thinking] they need/want to learn AND to communicate/demonstrate that learning to others who need/want to know (Meltzer 2001: 16 cited in Kersaint et al, 2013: 8).

Language in mathematics is symbolic and has some specific characteristics that make the reading and writing of mathematics more complex. At the same time this complexity also makes mathematics a rich and interesting subject. Reading and writing mathematics is a 'multifaceted task because the reader is challenged to acquire comprehension and mathematical understanding with fluency and proficiency through the reading of numerals and symbols, in addition to words' (Adams, 2003: 786).

Identifying learners who are struggling with reading and writing of mathematics is not always straight forward and requires an awareness of potential issues. Perhaps the emphasis should be on supporting all learners, at whatever age and level of learning mathematics with the reading and writing of mathematics.

Strategies to support the reading and writing of mathematics are similar to those in language learning and can be easily incorporated in everyday mathematics lessons. See the following MESH Guides: Reluctant Writers,Spelling. More Guides in literacy will becoming shortly.


  • Adams, T. (2003). Reading Mathematics: More than Words Can Say. The Reading Teacher, (8), 786. doi:10.2307/20205297
  • Kersaint, G., Thompson, D. R., & Petkova, M. (2013). Teaching mathematics to English language learners (2nd Edition). New York: Routledge.
  • Meltzer, J. (2001). The adolescent literacy support framework. Providence, RI: Northeast and Islands Regional Educational Laboratory at Brown University.