The more I teach maths – and I’ve been teaching it for a while now – the more I’ve come to realise that often its not a pupil’s mathematical ability that causes them difficulties, but the language of maths that is the problem.

So as we enter exam season, I offer this top tip for success in mathematics: buy and use a highlighter pen.

Questions are often wrapped up in words, but the words don’t matter, well most of them. Pick up your highlighter pen and highlight any numbers and a *few *keywords – suddenly the question becomes a whole lot clearer.

Look at this example:

Fred and Terry are building a wall. To make mortar, they need to mix sand and cement in the ratio 5 parts sand to 1 part cement. They estimate that they need a total of 30Kg of mortar. How much sand do they need?

A fairly simple question wrapped up in lots of unnecessary words. So lets take our highlighter pen and pick out the key parts to this question:

Fred and Terry are building a wall. To make mortar, they need to mix sand and cement in the ratio 5 parts sand to 1 part cement. They estimate that they need a total of 30Kg of mortar. How much sand do they need?

So a rather long question simply becomes

Ratio 5:1, total of 30

… and all you need to do now is share the 30 in the ratio 5:1 (If you want some practice in sharing in ratios, you can get some questions from my worksheets here)

It doesn’t matter that its Terry and Fred, or what they are doing, that’s all just irrelevant information. Use your highlighter to pick out the key info and ignore the rest of the question, its only there to confuse you.

Oh, and highlighters can be a great help too when simplifying equations, but that’s a whole other blog post for the future.

If you are doing exams – at any level – over the next few weeks: Good Luck!