The Math Reading Classroom

In my previous post, I make a case for reading becoming a necessary component of the math classroom.

It’s interesting to consider what would it look like to integrate “the reading of mathematics” into a secondary math course as an essential learning target. “Essential” in the sense that we explicitly teach it, assess it and report out student status on it.

You’d start by creating a learning objective (or borrowing one that’s already written). Then you create some success conditions. Then you create an assessment (or series of assessments) so that you have a tangible experience in your mind when you are designing the learning activities.

In my mind, reading would need to be treated like one of the Common Core’s Standards of Mathematical Practice. It isn’t math content. The reading experience would be designed to a certain grade level, but in order to properly assess the reading, you have might need to back off the intensity of the math.

Obviously, word problems are nothing new. But this would be a different kind of word problem. Using the word problems as a READING assessment instead of a math assessment is not something I’ve seen before… or done before. Reading assessments look like a reading passage with some strategic follow-up questions designed to examine a student’s reading comprehension. Seems like a word-problem-esque scenario could take on that feel.

I imagine something like this:

“Danny and Sandy both collect bottle caps. Whenever they get together, they bring all their bottle caps with them. Danny has four Coke caps, three Sprite caps, five Mountain Dew Caps, and a Faygo cap. He’ll have more Mountain Dew caps when the 12-pack that his mom bought is gone. Sandy has nine Coke caps, five Pepsi Caps, and nine Mountain Dew Caps. Sandy wants more Pepsi caps, but that will have to wait because her Dad came home with a Pepsi 12-pack of cans yesterday.”

Okay, this is not perfect and people who write test questions for a living would probably come up with something much better. But, this a fairly standard word problem set-up. So, what questions would we ask if what we’re really trying to do is assess a student’s ability to read instead of assessing his/her ability to do compute? Maybe questions like these:

From the evidence, which of the two do you suspect drinks more pop? Why?

How many more bottles of Mountain Dew do you think are left to drink at Danny’s house? Why?

After Sandy finishes the 12-pack of Pepsi that her dad just bought, how many Pepsi bottle caps will she have? Explain how you know that?

The reading passage is written at about a 6th grade level, depending on which index you use. The math in the questions is probably first or second grade. So, giving that passage and set of questions to a seventh grade class would only be valuable as a reading assessment. How well are the students comprehending the details of the situation? Details like Danny’s 12-pack of Mountain is eventually going to yield 12 caps and he’s already 5 caps into it. Sandy’s 12-pack of Pepsi will yield zero caps because the pops are all cans.

Asking those questions gives you a window into the ability that each student has to comprehend the text. But considering the possibility of assessing our students in this way leads to a couple of confrontation points.

First, I don’t know of any math teachers who have learning standards written for mathematical reading. Those would have to be developed. That’s not a small or insignificant step. We don’t want to get in the habit of assessing without clearly defined learning targets.

Second, our students usually skip word problems in their practice sets. We would have to build in structures that change that. Whether it’s taking some pages from the #FlipClass playbook, or using some cooperative learning structures, somehow the attitude around word problems would have to change. We don’t want to get in the habit of assessing things that we know the students aren’t practicing.

Third, if a student begins to fall behind, or regularly is assessing at a low level on the math reading assessments, most math teachers are not well-equipped to provide appropriate curriculum-based interventions in the area of reading. These exist, but math teachers are typically not trained in their use. We don’t want to get in the habit of asking teachers to do things they aren’t trained or equipped to do.

Confrontations aside, there’s a lot of potential here. Potential for student growth. Potential for interdepartmental collaboration. Potential for more holistic math classes. But as with all updates, redesigns and revisions, it needs to be done strategically, thoughtfully, and with the best interests of the teachers and students in mind.

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5 thoughts on “The Math Reading Classroom

  1. I have read all these posts with interest and some surprise.
    Firstly, if the text of the “word” problem is at a sensible level (unlike some of the ELA texts) then it is not unreasonable to expect students to make sense of them and dig out the math. There is no point in having wonderful, or even average, math ability if you cannot use it in the “real” world. Of course some attention must be given to words and turns of phrase which are uncommon or never found in everyday language.
    Secondly, more attention should be given to “show your working” and “explain the procedure” stuff. I have seen numerous exampes of kids math work with no words in sight. An explanation should be understandable by a non-expert.
    Thirdly, and of vital importance, is the READING of math, in the sense of “what does it tell me about the situation described. “Why equals em ex plus bee” is a woefully inadequate reading of y=mx+b. Very little effort is putinto this aspect of Reading.

    • “it is not unreasonable to expect students to make sense of them”

      I don’t disagree with this. And I don’t think, in general, there would be much disagreement in the math community at large.

      What was troubling me is that in my experience, I’ve seen far fewer instances of us teaching math reading to our students who aren’t meeting our “not unreasonable” expectation. They might be identified as struggling readers, but the math teacher probably doesn’t have a lot of tools to support those students specifically in the area of reading.

      If we considered ourselves reading teachers, perhaps we might.

      • A math teacher shouldn’t find it too difficult to rephrase a problem, or help the student to do so, if the teacher understands the problem as given. Ok, this is useless in a BS test situation!

  2. The questions/ideas you’ve posted are thought-provoking. I have a very strong foot in the camp that says math questions should clearly test for math ideas and understandings, and I think pumping the questions full of situational extras for content sake means that we are not testing the math. Then there is the part of me that really does need a student to comprehend the complexities that will determine the math that needs to happen to create a viable solution (kinda like this sentence – lol!) and I know they need the reading comprehension. The students in my classes without good reading skills struggle much harder to understand the math – not just word problems, but simple, straightforward directions. I address these issues in the classroom because I know they will/could/can fail a test on math b/c of reading, and actually know how to do the math! That is so wrong!

    • This is why I propose scaffolding in the reading. Since you are correct that reading could be a barrier to an otherwise effective math student experiencing success.

      I suppose if we know that it’s a risk, then we need to be ahead of it and teach those students the reading skills they need to work remove those barriers. Especially when you consider that reading in math class is a different type of reading than in other content areas.

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