The Role of Reading in Math Class

My more recent endeavors have moved me away from exclusively math and allowed me to enter into the world of literacy, particularly elementary literacy. (Math teachers out there, if you haven’t gotten a chance to sit and participate in a conversation among elementary folks talking about kids learning to read, the essential components of curricula and classroom activities, the different types of assessment and support for struggling learners, etc. then do it. Such interesting conversations…)

But my math background led me to look at the new literacy experiences I’ve been having through the lens of the math classroom. Specifically, what are the elements of literacy education in a problem like this:

Volume Geometry problem

taken from Holt’s Geometry, 2009 Edition, Page 702 #25

What math content knowledge is this problem asking students to use? Volume of cylinders, volume of rectangular prisms, and simple probability.

But we need to keep in mind that the ability to read is a significant skill to being able to apply math to this problem. Especially when you consider that the typical high school student probably doesn’t read quite as well as we’d like them to. I want to be clear that I’m not saying that this is an excuse for us to eliminate reading as a way to accommodate this potential weakness in our students, but it is important that we recognize that we are asking students to exercise that skill when solving this problem.

When we are asking our students to read as part of a math experience, we should do so deliberately. There are times when one of our stated learning outcomes is helping students learn to read math. There is a lot of value in that skill. There are also times when we are much more interested in helping the students set-up and solve math problems in ways that may not require as much reading.

This requires us to be strategic about what we are expecting our students to be able to do by the end of a lesson. Consider the math problem from earlier in the post. Literacy doesn’t have to be a barrier to that math content.

Andrew Stadel provides an example of how volume of multiple solids can be integrated into a math problem in video form.

Dan Meyer integrates a fairly similar set of content in a much different (and more delicious) scenario.

Using video in your class is one way to provide access to a math problem without having student having to tackle the reading part, which can be a pretty significant barrier to some students. In the past, I certainly haven’t been nearly conscious enough of the literacy demands I was putting on the students when I asked them to explore math content. Here’s a perfect example of a handout from my geometry course. How many students would benefit from a video introduction to this handout? (Especially when you consider how many students aren’t real strong using a protractor…)

It just all goes back to us, as educators, having a clear vision for what we want our students to learn by the end of their time with us and being willing to do what it takes to help them get there.

Vocab: The Foundations of Math Talk

I want to talk about vocabulary for a minute.

Specifically, I want to describe one way that can support students struggling to learn vocabulary that is necessary for effective math talk. Often times, struggling math students are willing math talkers, but the math talk is filled with pronouns (that thingy right there, you know what I mean?), hand gestures, and rough sketches.

This can make communication a bit of a chore, especially if the student is talking to another student who is also still in the beginning stages of developing understanding in that topic.

So, here’s a way that you can change the conversation a bit.

Consider this handout combined with this Google Form.

In short, the students would take a few minutes exploring different formal definitions for the vocab words you are exploring. There are always differences if you go to different sources, so by forcing them to explore a variety of interpretations, you can really help the students see that this vocabulary is about describing an idea, not memorizing a specific wording. This is important, at least to me.

Pair the students up (or group them in 3’s) and have them consider the big ideas and develop their “own-words” definitions for each vocab word. Then they plug them into the Google Form.

At that point, you’ve got a nice collection of what your class currently has taken away from their time. (And by “time”, I mean about 20 minutes from start to submission.)

As you wander around listening to the conversations, you’ll likely notice a few definitions that are coming together more slowly than others. This is inevitable.

At that point, I’d bring in Wordle. Wordle is a free tool that build word clouds. Word clouds can have a nice visual appeal and change the way a block of text looks by changing the physical size of a word based on its frequency in the text. For confusing definitions, this tool has the potential to help the students hone in on the big ideas. For my students, it was often “circle.” Most kindergartners could draw a decent circle (or at least a shape that you would guess quite quickly was supposed to be a circle.) But, that visual understanding is often as far as students get.

Want to see how well your students understand what a circle really is? Ask them why this is a lousy attempt to draw a circle. See what they say.

bad free hand circle

If your students are struggling with an idea, though, go into the Google Form responses, copy all of their definitions and paste them into a Wordle.

My third hour Geometry last year, produced this word cloud.


This isn’t going to solve all of your problems by any means, but with a visual like this, your students will have the opportunity to see that the major idea of this concept of circle revolve around the notion of a center point, a distance, and points in a curved shape. Those are major steps in the right direction when we are moving students away from a purely visual understanding of what a circle is and helping them understand the geometric properties of a circle.

Remember, the goal of learning vocabulary is to facilitate student understanding of the content. Memorizing a definition only goes so far. We have to continue to develop the means to push students to internalize the bigger ideas within the vocab so that those words then become foundations to build more sophisticated ideas.

If you feel like you’d like a tutorial of how to use Wordle, I went ahead and made one.

NPR wants to advise your pizza order…

Quoctrung Bui from NPR says that there are at least 74476 reasons that you should always get the bigger pizza. (The article has an awesome interactive graph, too!)

If we could mix the article with a math exploration, we could provide an awesome opportunity for a math-literacy activity that can combine reasoning, reading, writing, and some number-crunching all in the same experience. That’s a nice combination. Also I suspect the content hits close to home for most students. (The leadership in our district is often looking for opportunities to increase authentic reading and writing in math classes. This seems to fit the bill quite well.)

Here’s an activity:

Although without fail, the menus from a variety of local pizza joints will probably be a bit more engaging. (Look for an update coming soon…)

Shauverino Pizziano

But the big question is why?

According to Bui: “The math of why bigger pizzas are such a good deal is simple: A pizza is a circle, and the area of a circle increases with the square of the radius.” 

Yup… that’s pretty much it.