I always worry that, as a literacy coach, I make math teachers nervous. And honestly, it’s probably reasonable- too often, coaches like me (I should note that I’m guilty of this too), move into conversations with facilitators without a real understanding of math as a content area. In addition, we sometimes coach math teachers to do things that don’t support students’ development of math knowledge and skills.

I’m here to say that literacy in math does NOT just mean reading word problems, biographies of mathematicians, or even articles with, at best, superficial connections to math content. Instead, I’d argue that whenever you’re engaging with students in meaningful work involving mathematical symbols and language- work that helps them understand concepts more deeply- you’re supporting students’ math literacy.

With the help of some wonderful facilitators at New Tech’s annual conference, we defined math literacy as…

“Students’ ability to comprehend and produce mathematical symbols (including mathematical language) in a way that shows conceptual understanding and critical thinking.”

Literacy in math means reading and writing shapes, equations, symbols, graphs, lines, formulas, and proofs- and so much more. Supporting students’ deep conceptual understanding of the Pythagorean Theorem or helping them understand what the equal sign means when balancing equations = math literacy.

Of course, I’d also like to argue that there’s a place for writing in math that goes beyond writing an equation. According to Geoff Krall, so much of math literacy is about producing and comprehending mathematical models- and ultimately, it’s about moving from concrete to abstract. And what better way to see into kids’ heads- and get a sense of what they’re understanding about those mathematical models- than to ask students to write about those same models? Are they looking at data, creating a line of best fit, maybe? What does that mean? What have they done, and what are the implications and conclusions they can draw? Ask kids to write about it. You’ll get an interesting glimpse into their thinking.

And I promise, it’s ok to ignore the grammar mistakes this time, and focus on the math literacy.

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