Reading and writing mathematics

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

Specific issues of language use in mathematics

Mathematics has some specific issues of language use. Some of these are:

  • Vocabulary: specialised words, compound phrases for new words (lowest common multiple, square root), homonyms with common English words (plain/plane; sum/some), multiple terms for same concepts (addition: sum, add, plus, increased by, and)
  • Multiple meanings of words which are different from everyday language, e.g volume (amount of space taken up by an object versus noise level of electronic equipment), product (result of multiplying numbers versus an item produced by a company), etc
  • Symbols: learners have to give it a functionality (what does it do) and understand the rules. On top of that:
  • Simple symbol, but lots of words to verbalise it, eg >, ≤, ≠
  • Lots of ways to verbalize the same symbol, e,g 3 x 4 can be read as '3 times 4'; '3 lots of 4'; '3 multiplied by 4'
  • Syntax - often inversion. E.g. the number 6 is 2 more than the number 4. Mathematics text such as in word problems is also often in passive voice. (Kersaint et al, 2013; Adams, 2003)


  • 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.