Guest Post: Literacy in Mathematics

Our guest author today is Stacie Leavitt, an instructor at AcerPlacer who recently got a degree in math education from Weber State University. She will begin teaching for the Weber County School District this Fall.

A few years back there was a standard set in education that literacy should not be taught in our English classes alone, but that it should be taught in every single subject matter. Now for the History or Spanish teachers in a school, that may not feel like too high of a demand, but for math teachers it came as an abrupt surprise and a rather daunting task. “Now we’re not only teaching them math, but we have to teach them how to read too?! Those are almost entirely unrelated subjects!” As such, literacy is still highly overlooked when it comes to most math classrooms. However, if we take a deeper look at what literacy really is, maybe we can find more connection there than we thought.

Literacy in its most basic definition is the ability to read and write, but The National Literacy Trust includes [that], ‘A literate person is able to communicate effectively with others and to understand written information.’ So let’s dive a little bit deeper into these definitions. What exactly do we read and write? Our language is a mixture of symbols that when put in a certain order then mean a certain thing. We then need to be able to decode these symbols, use them to communicate, and be able to write about them. Similarly, much of math is being able to read the symbols to grasp their meaning, communicate about them, and then use those same symbols to write down your response. In fact the techniques used to decode and comprehend a paragraph are very similar to those used to decode and comprehend an equation. So how are literacy and math any different? They’re not really, it’s just teaching a new language within our own language. This is the idea that if we were to emphasize in our classrooms, we would not only be able to teach literacy but we would actually be able to teach math better and connect it more to skills that many of our students already have.

Now as a teacher myself, some of the main things that I have observed in different classrooms that separate literacy and mathematics are the absence of real world texts, few to no story problems, and the emphasis on the procedures instead of actual comprehension. In many of these classrooms, I can understand why a teacher would feel to build their curriculum this way due to the demographics of the school where maybe the majority don’t have high levels of literacy or math skills, are ESL learners, or their family situation can make it almost impossible to assign homework to take home. However this is exactly the classroom situation where there needs to be more focus on decoding and comprehension of text, especially the symbols and their meaning. Authentic math texts would be great for students to be exposed to in order to help them realize that math is more than just a process. It’s something people have wondered about, written about, built, discovered, and created. It’s both true and fallible and it’s ok to make mistakes in. Similarly real world story problems (not ones about buying 60 watermelons) can help them see how they can use these decoding and comprehension tools in a work or real world setting. But the biggest problem of them all is the the focus on the procedure. When this is overemphasized in a classroom it cuts off the need for students to become literate in math. There’s no need to decode the equations, comprehend what they’re meaning and what they do end up writing isn’t actually being understood. Their ability to tell you what they wrote and what it means is completely gone. Teachers wonder why, and honestly it’s because we don’t teach enough literacy in math.

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