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Incorporating Literacy in Mathematics Using Newman’s Prompts

By: Anita McMahon


Just like oil and vinegar, it has been believed that mathematics and literacy do not mix. The use of mathematical word problems in the classroom has long attracted a range of opinions, with some teachers believing that such word problems are designed to ‘trick’ students [1]. There is also evidence that suggests students struggle with the literacy demands of mathematical word problems [2]. But what if I told you, that if you did mix the two – you will a) get a great salad dressing, and b) greatly enhance students’ critical thinking skills.

In fact, the relationship between mathematics and literacy is bidirectional, each providing tools for the acquisition of knowledge in the other [3]. Mathematics itself, presents students with countless opportunities to develop a range of literacy skills in reading, comprehension, and interpretation. Therefore, literacy strategies such as Newman’s Prompts can be implemented to assist in the systematic and explicit teaching of Mathematics.

What are Newman’s Prompts?

Newman’s prompts were developed by an Australian language educator, Anne Newman during the mid-1970’s. They were designed as an error analysis tool to provide teachers with a framework to consider the underlying reasons why students are answering worded questions incorrectly [2].

According to Newman, there is a hierarchy of five skills that must be applied when answering worded mathematical questions [2]. Each of the following skills has an associated prompt:

  1. Reading (Decoding)Read the question out loud, and if you don’t know a word, leave it out.

A reading error occurs when the student cannot read the key words or symbols in the question, preventing them from proceeding further to answer the question [4].

  1. Comprehension What is the question asking you to do?

A comprehension error occurs at this stage if the student cannot understand the meaning of the words in order to solve the problem [4].

  1. Transformation (or Mathematising) How are you going to find the answer?

This refers to the student’s ability to manipulate the words of a question into an appropriate mathematical equation. A transformation error occurs when a student is unable to identify the correct operations or process required to solve the problem [4].

  1. Process Skills – Show me what to do to get the answer. Talk aloud as you do it, so that I can understand how you are thinking.

This allows teachers to understand the students process. Errors are highlighted when the student is unable to complete the set of operations necessary to answer the questions correctly (although they were able to identify the operations needed) [4].

  1. Encoding – Write down your answer to the question.

The final prompt asks the student to write down the answer in an acceptable written form. Errors can still occur at this stage, and this is evident when the student is unable to express their solution in an acceptable form, despite being able to correctly solve the problem [4].

Failure at any level of the sequence will prevent students from obtaining the correct answer. It is possible for a student to make careless errors along the sequence or provide an incorrect response because of lack of motivation. This obviously isn’t indicative of the student’s true ability and such an error is categorised as “Careless” [5].


How Can Newman’s Prompts be used in the classroom?

Newman’s prompts can be implemented in the mathematics classroom as a pedagogical tool, creating a scaffold for students as they answer worded problems. As students work through the five prompts, they will develop a systemic approach to problem solving that can also be applied to several other subjects. Examples of how to implement this strategy in the classroom include:

  • Visually displaying a poster outlining the 5 prompts in the classroom.
  • Printing out a table with a summary of the 5 prompts which can be pasted into the student’s workbooks and used as a scaffold when necessary.
  • Having students work collaboratively in groups and read the prompts out loud to one another as they work through the problem together.
  • Having students highlight the literacy features as they rearrange a deconstructed problem in the correct sequence.

It is important that literacy strategies such as Newman’s prompts are incorporated in the mathematics classroom because a student’s level of literacy will influence their ability to demonstrate understanding in numeracy. Furthermore, Newman’s prompts establish a simple, structured approach to problem solving that can be applied to all areas of mathematics.

So, go ahead and mix the two – literacy and numeracy that is, to create a wonderful and enriching mathematics lesson!



[1] Askew, M. (2003), Word problems: Cinderellas or wicked witches? In I. Thompson (Ed.), Enhancing primary mathematics teaching (pp. 78-85). Berkshire, England: Open University Press.

[2] White, A. L. (2009). Newman’s Error Analysis’ Impact upon Numeracy and Literacy. In Third International Conference on Science and Mathematics Education Penang, Malaysia.

[3] Rhodes, H, Feder, M, & National Research Council, (2014), Literacy For Science: Exploring The Intersection Of The Next Generation Science Standards And Common Core For ELA Standards: A Workshop Summary, Washington, D.C.: National Academies Press.

[4] White, A.L. (2010). Numeracy, Literacy and Newman’s Error Analysis: Journal of Science and Mathematics Education in Southeast Asia, 33(2), 129 – 148.

[5] Clements, M. A. & Ellerton, N. (1996). The Newman Procedure for Analysing Errors on Written Mathematical Tasks. Viewed 11 January 2021, <>