Q&A: Moving a Literacy Focus to Math

by Math Solutions Professional Learning Team, August 25th, 2014

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Carolyn Felux answered the following question about moving a literacy focus to math.

Q. We have a major literacy initiative in my district. As the Math Coordinator, how can I get teachers to think about mathematics when everything seems to be focused around literacy?

A. Every district in the country has a focus on literacy. Still, there are ways to connect literacy and math instruction so that teachers can bring the strengths they have with language arts instruction to their math teaching.

It’s true that the skills required to understand language differ from those required to learn math. Yet similarities do exist. It’s important that we highlight the underlying similarities so that we can tap into instruction strategies for math that are already being used for language arts.

As math leaders, the more we know about teaching language arts, the better we’ll become at finding commonalities that will help us support teachers in improving math instruction. Here are some ways you can tap into, and tie together, existing strengths between your district’s mathematics and literacy programs.

Attend Literacy Professional Development

Become familiar with important aspects of literacy instruction in your district. You’ll gain insight into the ways that literacy instruction and mathematics instruction are alike and different. You can use this information in your own professional development work to help teachers link what they know about literacy instruction to their mathematics instruction.

Work with Your District’s Literacy Specialists

Take advantage of the expertise of literacy specialists in your district to help build your background and understanding of aspects of literacy instruction. Visit them in the classroom to observe language arts lessons, and invite them to observe math lessons. Here you will gain insight into each other’s instructional approaches.

Encourage teachers to engage students in math with the same passion they have for reading. The following techniques are useful in both literacy and mathematics instruction.

Develop Lessons Based on Children’s Books

Using children’s literature as a context for learning is a mainstay of literacy programs across the country. Your teachers can also use literature as a context for posing a variety of interesting mathematical problems that will challenge students’ thinking and reasoning abilities. There are literally hundreds of children’s literature books available that are wonderful resources for teaching mathematics.

Math Solutions Professional Development offers teachers valuable resources and inservice that will help them select the appropriate books and create engaging lessons based on children’s literature and nonfiction.

Bring Meaning to Words and Symbols

In language arts, it is not enough that students can read the words—they must comprehend the message. Likewise, in mathematics, it is not enough that students can manipulate numbers and symbols and read math words. To be proficient, students must draw connections between these symbols and what they represent. The standard for math should be the same as the standard for reading—bringing meaning to the printed symbols.

In mathematics instruction, strategies such as the following support students in developing vocabulary and use of symbols in the context of a mathematics lesson:

  • Vocabulary and Symbol Chart. Before each lesson, write on the board a list of the mathematical words and symbols that you will be introducing. Assure students that you will explain and use each of these during the lesson. This will support students who may feel uncertain when encountering new symbols and terms. When introducing a new vocabulary word, draw a diagram to illustrate the meaning behind the word. By linking the word to a diagram or symbol, you help support learning, especially for young students and English language learners.

  • Repetition. Use the vocabulary words and symbols consistently and often in your lessons. Frequently refer to a vocabulary and symbol chart as you use vocabulary and symbols in lessons and discussions.

  • Encouragement. Encourage students to use the vocabulary in discussions and on written assignments. Understanding the language of math is just as important as developing the ability to solve problems.

Encourage Oral and Written Communication

For more than a decade, the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics (NCTM) has urged teachers to emphasize communication—talk and writing—as part of mathematics teaching and learning. The following techniques help teachers improve communication in math class.

  • Math Class Is a Time for Talk. Communication is essential for learning. Having students work quietly—and by themselves—limits their learning opportunities. Interaction helps children clarify their ideas, get feedback for their thinking, and hear other points of view. Students can learn from one another as well as from their teachers.

    Make student talk a regular part of your lessons. Partner talk—sometimes called “turn and talk” or “think-pair-share”—encourages students to voice their ideas. Giving them a minute or so to talk with a neighbor also helps students get ready to contribute to a discussion. It’s especially beneficial to students who are generally hesitant to share in front of the whole class.

  • Have Students Explain Their Reasoning. In mathematics, as in language arts, it’s a mistake to rely on quick, right answers as an indication of how well students understand. During math lessons, teachers need to probe students’ responses and ask, “Why do you think that? Why does that make sense? Convince us. Prove it. Does anyone have a different way to think about the problem? Does anyone have another explanation?”

    When children are asked to explain their thinking, they must organize their ideas. They have the opportunity to develop and extend their understanding. Teachers are accustomed to asking students to explain their thinking when their responses are incorrect. It’s important, however, to ask children to explain their reasoning at all times.

    Math Solutions offers teachers a variety of books and sessions that facilitate classroom discussions, including So You Have to Teach Math?, the Good Questions series, and more.

  • Make Writing a Part of Math Learning. Communication in math class includes writing as well as talking. When children write in math class, they have to revisit their thinking and reflect on their ideas. And student writing gives teachers a way to assess how their students are thinking and what they understand. Writing in math class best extends from children’s talking. When partner talk, small-group interaction, or a whole-class discussion precedes a writing assignment, students have a chance to formulate their ideas before they’re expected to write.

It’s true that literacy receives significant attention in most school districts. It’s also true that many teachers are more comfortable with language arts instruction than with math. But we can choose to see these circumstances as avenues to enhancing math initiatives rather than barriers. By building on some of the commonalities and strengths we find with language arts instruction, we can strengthen the focus on mathematics and generate greater enthusiasm for teaching and learning it.


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