“What can a focus on oracy and manipulatives do to improve disciplinary literacy in mathematics?” poses Oxford University Press Professional Development Lead, Louise Pennington.

In 2022, Ofsted’s research review for English stated, ‘Fluency in the English language is an essential foundation for success in all subjects.’ 1 This came as no surprise to educators, who have long understood that language is central to every aspect of school life and success beyond the school gates. Spoken language skills are ‘one of the strongest predictors of a child’s future life chances.’ 2 However, speech and language remains the largest category of need in our schools, 3 and this gap between children’s vocabulary skills and agerelated expectations (labelled ‘the Word Gap’ by Oxford University Press (OUP) is large on entry to school and is widening. 4There is also a strong correlation between language skills and attainment in mathematics, with the DfE claiming that those not achieving the expected standard in language at age five are already eleven times less likely to achieve the expected level in maths, six years later, at age eleven. 5

Oracy (the ability to express ourselves fluently in speech) and disciplinary literacy (the ability to speak, write and communicate like an expert in a subject field) are key foci for many schools post-pandemic. As teachers know all too well, opportunities for collaboration and meaningful discussion dramatically reduced as schools grappled with keeping their school community safe whilst still providing education. Emerging from the lockdowns, it was clear that this extended period of distance learning and lack of collaboration for those in the classroom had compounded the existing persistent language issues across educational settings. A recent study carried out by OUP as part of the Word Gap series, shows that 92% of surveyed teachers thought disruption due to Covid-19 contributed to a widening of the Word Gap. 6 In the maths context, a further study in the series reported that 75% of Education Professionals thought school closures impacted children’s understanding of Mathematical Language.7

Disciplinary Literacy

Disciplinary literacy in maths essentially means thinking and communicating as a mathematician. This includes knowing and using Tier 3 vocabulary and developing the higher order skills of reasoning and problem solving.

Reasoning, to me, is the maths equivalent to comprehension in English. If we think of this as mathematical comprehension, we then understand that it requires specific teaching and practise, just as reading comprehension does, but how common are guided reasoning sessions?

As practitioners, we are encouraged to ‘Create opportunities for extended discussion of mathematical ideas with children. 8 But, to make the most of such opportunities, novice children often need this process consistently modelled and scaffolded. All of this needs to be happening in a classroom where thinking is valued and positively challenged, to have impact. The pre-teaching and modelling of Tier 3 vocabulary has perhaps never been more important.

Subject-specific oracy can be difficult to find time for in an already full curriculum. But, beyond written exercises, learners need opportunities to collaborate, explain, challenge, justify and prove. Children need to create mathematical stories, theories, problems and questions and spend time exploring these. One way to spark this is by sharing carefully chosen stories, images, puzzles or games to encourage curiosity and invite exploration. This could be for a new or difficult concept or even a common misconception highlighted when marking. Asking children to talk about what they can see, what they know and are wondering is a low-threat way to promote collaborative talk. Pre-prepared sentence stems can help to structure thoughts, ideas, and verbal responses.

Accountable talk

A classroom ethos that supports ‘adaptive reasoning’ and ‘accountable talk’ is well on the way to achieving higher language attainment. Adaptive reasoning, one of the five strands of mathematical proficiency, is concerned with the development of children’s capacity to think logically, reflect, explain and justify Accountable talk refers to the type of talk that moves learning forward. Any student-centric discussion in the classroom is accountable talk. It is crucial to create opportunities for this otherwise, Resnick et al. explain that developing knowledge ‘remains static and unused.’ 10 Howe et al. also highlight the significance of encouraging pupils to query and elaborate upon each other’s ideas, as well as supporting all pupils to engage in classroom dialogue. 11

If not already established, we need to consider planning for regular oracy opportunities in mathematics and ensure they are incorporated into what we already do in our maths lessons – not viewing it as something additional to find time for during the week. Within this planning, we need to consider who may require additional teaching and support or challenge and what resources are available to support this. It doesn’t need to be onerous. A fundamental thing to consider is the questions you will ask – anticipating the questions children may raise in response to the stimulus and what you will use to scaffold talk. Plan for a variety of question types over a topic, e.g., closed or open questions, probing or funnel questions. Funnel questions can be particularly useful in maths for situations where the aim is to discover specific information or formulae by funnelling down to key information, or opposingly, exploring a specific idea and working backwards to find and draw in additional information and connected concepts. A planning format that allows for questioning to be highlighted is useful here.

Using manipulatives

It isn’t just because I’m an advocate for the use of manipulatives that I say, with conviction, that manipulatives are central to building solid mathematical communication. Theoretical support for use of manipulatives dates back to developmental theorists, e.g. Piaget (1965), Bruner (1964) and Montessori (1948). Manipulatives enable children to ‘show what they know’ and their tactile nature means that they invite collaboration and talk. A recent impact study that focused on Numicon (an approach to teaching maths that exposes concepts and helps children to see connections between mathematical ideas) found that 97% of respondents perceived Numicon as key to improving mathematical communication and the use of mathematical language and vocabulary. 12

Prioritising the purposeful use of manipulatives, within a mastery approach, to engage and support students’ mathematical communication and understanding in maths is equally important as planning for such opportunities. Manipulatives are not just for young children or those who find maths more difficult, although they are perfect for both these groups of learners.

Manipulatives can extend thinking for all children whilst exposing more complex patterns and structures that otherwise may be difficult to spot when working in the abstract. Essentially, they make ‘harder’ maths more accessible.

Manipulatives help children with the thinking process, and aid explaining, reasoning and justifying – even for the more able, shoulder shrugging ‘I just knew it’ group. They support accountable talk and assist in situations where children need to convince one another and find reliable proof, demonstrating how we arrived at our answer.

The development of oracy and use of manipulatives really do open the door to thinking and communicating like a mathematician.

Top tips for developing disciplinary literacy in maths

  • Pre-teaching and modelling of mathematical vocabulary
  • Build Tier 3 vocabulary over time (developed alongside the curriculum)
  • Plan for oracy and questioning
  • Use manipulatives where possible
  • Develop a culture of accountable talk in the classroom

References and further reading

  1. OFSTED, 2022. ‘Research and Analysis, Research Review Series: English’.
  2. Voice 21, 2021. ‘Case for Support, Empowering every child to use their voice to succeed in school and in life’.
  3. DfE 2022, Special Educational Needs in England
  4. Oxford University Press, 2018. ‘Why closing the word gap matters: Oxford Language Report’
  5. DfE 2017, Justine Greening Speech: our ambition is to leave no community behind
  6. Oxford University Press, 2022. ‘How Schools are Closing the Word Gap: Oxford Language Report 20121-22’
  7. Oxford University Press, 2021. ‘Preparing for the future: Using curiosity and creativity to boost confidence in maths: A White Paper for International Educators’
  8. Education Endowment Foundation, 2020. ‘Improving Mathematics in the Early Years and Key Stage 1: Guidance Report’.
  9. Kilpatrick, J. et al, 2001. Adding it up: Helping children learn mathematics
  10. Resnick, LB, et al. 2018. Accountable Talk: Instructional dialogue that builds the mind
  11. Howe, C. et al, 2018. Teacher-Student Dialogue during Classroom Teaching: Does it Really Impact upon Student Outcomes?
  12. Oxford Impact Report, 2019: To what extent does Numicon help Primary learners improve their mathematical communication and use of mathematical vocabulary and language?

Education Endowment Foundation, 2022, EEF Blog: Promoting high-quality talk in maths.


  • Louise Pennington

    Louise is the professional development lead at Oxford University Press. With a background in primary teaching and special needs, Louise was a SENCO, member of SLT and later a specialist teacher for maths difficulties, leading the Local Authority SEND Team. Louise is an advocate for purposeful, subject-specific talk and the use of manipulatives in mathematics.
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