Embedding English and Maths

So here is another element of modern learning practice that needs to be “embedded” along with all the other things that are supposed to be seamlessly merged with often completely unrelated curriculum content. Anyone got a sledgehammer handy?

English and Maths are less useful concepts for this than literacy and numeracy. English is a body of knowledge and maths is a set of skills. But literacy and numeracy are how we use this body of knowledge and this set of skills in our everyday lives. Literacy and numeracy underpin the way we study, shop, find information and make life decisions.

The best description of literacy I have found is that literacy is “the space between text and thought” (David Barton and Mary Hamilton 1998). I love this description largely because it conceptualises information literacy beautifully: I even named this blog partly in honour of it! But it also gives a conceptual bridge to the difference between decoding text (reading) and interpreting its meaning, connecting it with existing knowledge. It’s the equivalent of identifying someone is smiling and being able to understand that means someone is happy.

With one-shot information literacy sessions I have always been fairly confident that through our sessions students were both learning new literacy skills and practicing existing skills. Synonyms are pretty key in planning searches and students often struggle with this element, so we spend time thinking about alternative ways of expressing our search terms. My favourite example is child/children/childhood and paediatric. Just changing the search terms can transform your search results (Rw/L1.3). We also work with students to broaden and narrow concepts in response to the search results they obtained. So if “childhood rickets” returns too few results, students learn how to broaden this to “childhood nutrition” or “malnutrition” for example (Rw/L1.3).

We also teach truncation, which is a very fancy word for shortening words to their base and adding an asterisk to produce the widest set of search results possible. So if we are interested in nutrition in childhood, we can search for child* and get results for child, children and childhood (Rw/L1.3). Databases and the web work semantically and this makes the words you choose to search all-powerful in what results you get back (Rt/L2.6). Once unleashed on our databases they begin to understand why spelling correctly is important (Ww/L2.1)!

We also work with our students to evaluate sources and to reference them. We challenge them to consider if sources are based on fact or opinion (Rt/L2.4, 2.5 and 2.7) and what the purpose of sources are (Rt/L2.2). Students need to read the material they find, comprehend it and explain if it is suitable for study or not in the context of their situation. A lot of the learning techniques I use also involve discussion (SLc/L2.1, 2.2 and 2.3) or the creation of presentations (SLc/L2.4).

Moving from further education into higher education, as I am at the moment, these skills remain and deepen beyond level two in the schemas set out by the Education and Training Foundation. The numeracy element has always worried me far more. Not coming from a maths background and always having struggled with numeracy, in my previous role I saw little scope for embedding numeracy.

I now work with students studying for degrees (under and postgrad) in maths, the sciences and health professions. On coming into the role I was concerned I wouldn’t have a lot to teach my students with my maths GCSE! Yet I have begun to realise, embedding numeracy is as much about providing opportunities for students to practice what they already know and apply the skills they already have.

Indeed, one of my sessions, involves critically appraising quantitative medical research and includes discussion of p-values and confidence intervals (HD2/L2.1)! There will be data analysis and charts galore (HD1/L2.1)! In another session on literature searching, for one of my activities I will be trying out using percentage increase and decrease in searching databases and retrieving results (N2/L2.7).

So there’s lots to do with embedding literacy and numeracy. But one thing I think is probably needed to keep everyone sane about this (and stop some of us reaching for the sledgehammer!) is that embedding these will take place over the course of time. These opportunities happen in the round and not necessarily every box  will be ticked in every single lesson; sometimes that just isn’t practical and could detract from the actual learning outcomes sought. As Amjad Ali says of differentiation: these things are achieved “over time” (Amjad Ali 2016).


Amjad Ali (2016). Differentiation (Yes, another blog to read about it!). Can be accessed at https://newtothepost.wordpress.com/2016/01/30/differentiation-yes-another-blog-to-read-about-it/

David Barton and Mary Hamilton (1998) Local Literacies: Reading and Writing in One Community. London: Routledge.

Excellence Gateway’s Adult Literacy Core Curriculum: http://www.excellencegateway.org.uk/sflcurriculum

Excellence Gateway’s Adult Numeracy Core Curriculum: http://excellencegateway.org.uk/sflcurriculum




One thought on “Embedding English and Maths

  1. I loved your sledgehammer start! we’ve all been there. What an amazing sentiment “the space between text and thought” – that’s a keeper and it helps me (as a reader) see very quickly that you see literacy and numeracy as an important part of your work, despite your earlier sledgehammer jibe. I also think you have nailed a key principal, that embedding is “providing opportunities for students to practice what they already know” it doesn’t have to be new work every session. Your confidence to see this as something that needs to happen over time, not be crammed into the first few sessions (and certainly not to tick a box) is very encouraging. Great work.


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