Math IS Literacy- Now What?

A while ago, I argued that it IS possible to address literacy in math classes while addressing math content, and 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.”

(Original post available here or on the Literacy in Learning Exchange blog here.) I didn’t address what, specifically, you might do to help students develop math literacy.  I have some thoughts, but I’d also really like to hear from math facilitators on this topic- since literacy coaches really need to learn from math facilitators about their content area!

Define “reading” and “writing” broadly.  Math is a new language- and a new symbolic system as well.  Reading and writing in math includes shapes, diagrams, graphs, equations, lines, and a bazillion symbols that have different meanings outside of math.  Of course, mathematicians and math students also read words, e.g. in proofs, graphs, and word problems. Students need to learn to read and write in all these different ways in order to be successful in math, so “literacy in math” should include them all.

Get metacognitive and model. Here’s what I shared with a math facilitator on Twitter:

For example, as an English teacher, I often try to get students to be metacognitive about their own reading, first by modeling what I’m visualizing, inferring, reacting to, and thinking about as I actively read a text, and then by having students read actively as well.  Math facilitators can do the same thing, modeling what they notice and think about as they look at a graph, shape, diagram, equation, or word problem.  For example, Geoff Krall posted this graph, originally from TuvaLabs, as a great one to generate inquiry in students.

At some point in the inquiry process, you might model what you do as an expert “reader” of math.  What do you look for first in the graph? Next? After that? What do you think about as you look at the graph? What patterns or trends do you notice? You can also articulate your thinking as you create a model of a mathematical situation, like an equation, or as you write to articulate your thinking.  This involves going beyond simply sharing the steps you take to, say, create that equation, and requires you to delve into what you noticed, what you thought about, and why you did what you did.

Be precise about little things. In math, things like conjunctions and prepositions have specific meanings. So do symbols. And those meanings might change depending on the context. Students need to be “let in” on those little mathematical secrets- the meanings often aren’t transparent to students.  And, just like with any vocabulary word, students will need multiple repetitions where they’re required to think about and use those terms and symbols in meaningful ways in order to appropriate those precise definitions. For example, as I mentioned to in my first post, the equal sign can have different shades of meaning in different situations. As Siebert and Draper note in “Reconceptualizing Literacy and Instruction for Mathematics Classrooms,” the equal sign might signal “compute” to a student or it might signal “balance” or “equivalency.” (2012, Adolescent Literacy In the Disciplines).

I love what Lisa Velazquez tells her students about the importance of being precise:

With the advent of the Common Core and other revised state standards, you might also need to be careful about the definitions of terms, like fraction, ratio, and proportion, which may be  defined differently in the standards.

Have Students Write.  I know, I know, this is a tough sell when you feel like you have so much content to cover.  But writing can help students elaborate and articulate their thinking, and appears to be associated with improved performance later.  In “How Do Secondary Teachers Apprentice Students Into Mathematical Literacy,” Anne Marie Hillman notes that “mathematical literacy lends structure to children’s reasoning, particularly in the way students verify their solutions… Teachers can help students to construct mathematical understanding by requiring them to share their reasoning and verification processes orally or in writing.” She goes on to note that writing their verifications seems to improve students’ later problem solving more than simply articulating it orally, and that writing tends to be more precise (2014, Journal of Adolescent and Adult Literacy).  Opportunities for students to write, whether it’s to verify an answer and share their reasoning, explain a concept, or reflect on their learning, is a great way to include literacy skills without losing the math content.  If it helps, note that the writing doesn’t have to be carefully graded or assessed by you in order to be purposeful and meaningful for students.

So there are my “literacy coach thoughts” on a few key ways to support students with the development of math literacy, but I’d love to hear from math facilitators. What do you do?  Comment, or tweet me (@HortonAlix), or tag with #mathisliteracy!


Literacy Coach for New Tech Network

Tagged with:
Posted in Disciplinary Literacy, Writing
2 comments on “Math IS Literacy- Now What?
  1. Alix, Thank you for your eloquent thoughts on an subject that can often trip up us math folks. I would comment back two add-ons if I may:

    1. You mentioned that a teacher can and should model metacognitive thinking for students. I would push math teachers to devise structures that also push students into the role of model as well. For example, if a student goes up to the board to explain something as simple as a warm up/bell work problem, most students will immediately say, “Well first I did…” Or worse, students will silently write all of their work without any accompanying thoughts. Don’t let this be ok. Make it the norm in your classroom that students must first state what the problem is asking them to do, how they know that, what they think they should try first and why. While teacher modeling is important, I would argue that hearing a model in a student’s own vernacular might hit home even more. Plus, structured practice and feedback in this type of setting inevitably starts to trickle down into group conversations (which is an extra win!).

    2. Many teachers, and rightly so, are now using manipulatives or geometric representations of algebra to help students really conceptualize the content. Students often become quite speedy as solving an equation using lab gear for example, but then struggle when it comes to putting pencil to paper. To add in a thread of literacy here, I would recommend making “recording” a norm in your classroom as well. Each time students make a move with the manipulative, ask them to record what they did using the symbols, words, and numbers of the discipline. So, if students remove an ‘x’ piece from each side of the mat, they must record that move appropriately, like a mathematician. on their paper. It’s a great way to support deep conceptual understanding, while also weaving in the necessary literacy work.

    Hope this helps give a few examples of how to tackle this in classrooms! 🙂

  2. Thanks for the reminder that modeling isn’t enough, especially when it’s of the “first I did, then I did” variety- and that we have to have students practice applying whatever we model in meaningful ways! And I love the notion of having students use writing to expand on, verify their thinking, etc. when using any kind of manipulatives.

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