Teaching Reading in Math? Seriously?

Principal:  How would your math instruction change if your data team goal was based around students improving their OAKS Reading scores?

Shannon:  Seriously?! Wow! (Thoughts going a mile a minute in Shannon’s head.  Would it change?  Of course it would.  How?  What do I do now to teach students to be better readers in math?  There must be something….) Let me get back to you.

Dear Principal:

My students have a math assessment that they need to show proficiency on.  I would not and could not take time away from my math instruction. Any explicit reading instruction must go hand-in-hand with my math instruction and help – not hinder – my students’ math skills.

With that said, the first change I would make to my instruction is to explicitly teach about how to locate information in a math book.  Then I would continue to do what I do now, and hold every student accountable for using their math book and math notes as a resource. Giving instruction on how to locate information in a math book would probably allow my students to be more successful with this!  Novel idea!

In order to locate information in a math book, students need to understand how a math book is structuredResearch says that there are more concepts in each sentence and paragraph of a math text than any other textbook.  Math texts have little redundancy, and include a mixture of words, numbers, and math symbols in the same sentence.  There are graphics that are often critical in the understanding of the concept.  In addition, there are sidebars filled with historical facts, connections to another culture, and random colorful pictures.  Do my students come to me knowing what to pay attention to and what to ignore?  Only after this initial instruction about the structure of the math book would I begin to repeat and repeat and repeat the same questions,  “Where does the math book tell you how to do that step? What do your notes tell you about how or why that works?”

Not only would the students benefit from having a better understanding of how to locate information in their math text and notes, but I would benefit too.  With class sizes so large, I need the students to be able to use resources, in addition to me, to give them support.   Understanding the structure of the text, and citing evidence from the text are reading standards 1, 4, and 5.  Students would also be practicing math practice #3: Construct viable arguments.

The second change would be to include more explicit instruction on how to read for understanding. I would incorporate more word problems and application problems.  There would be a lot of modeling and talking (meta-cognition?) about how I approach the problem, how I monitor my comprehension, and how I continue to evaluate my progress of completing the problem. There would be highlighting, underlining, and circling going on everywhere in the classroom!  I would stop interpreting (spoon-feeding?) for my students.  And, it will take time and patience.

Is it worth the time and patience to explicitly teach, then incorporate more word and application problems?  I think my answer has to be yes.  One of the three shifts of the Common Core standards in Math is rigor.  Common Core defines rigor as a balance of procedural fluency, conceptual understanding, and application.  Application has always been the leg of the stool that gets chopped off because of time.   With this new reading goal, however, and with the emphasis on application in the math standards, I would make it a priority.  Especially helpful to me would be the three-act tasks many in the math community have been working on.  Most of these tasks are ready to use.  I would be challenged to be brave in trying something different like this in my classroom, to switch my thinking so that I view the tasks as just as important as procedural fluency and conceptual understanding.

If I teach the structure of the math book more thoroughly, engage students in citing evidence from the math book (and notes), model-model-model how I read and solve word problems, and find a better balance of procedure fluency, conceptual understanding, and application, I am convinced students would improve their reading skills.

Thanks for the disequilibrium.  Teaching reading in math: It just might work! 



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