To Teach Math, Study Reading Instruction

Author of the commentary for Education Week and math expert Marilyn Burns, says, “From more than 50 years of teaching experience, I’ve learned that elementary school teachers are typically more comfortable teaching reading.”

Burns is mostly concerned in her article with discussing elementary level education, although her principle could be applied beyond that as well. Essentially, she recognizes that most elementary level educators feel more comfortable teaching English language arts than mathematics, and she believes we can use this comfort and familiarity to improve mathematics instruction. While Burns certainly encourages professional development to help teachers understand mathematics at a deeper so they can go to a deeper level of comprehension with their students, she primarily wants to focus on helping teachers incorporate their strengths in teaching reading to teaching math. This requires, then, asking questions about what links there are between English and math instruction.

Following is an excerpt from the article:

A few years ago, when I was leading a professional-learning session at a school, I asked the teachers to list what they thought was important in their instructional program for reading and language arts. I had them do this first in small groups, and then we went around the room and I recorded as each group reported something from list. Here are some examples of what they said:

  • We want our students to love reading.
  • We want them to develop good word-attack skills.
  • We want them to read fluently.
  • We use a variety of teaching strategies—shared reading, guided reading, independent reading, read-alouds.
  • We include comprehension from the very start.
  • We ask children to make predictions about what might come next in a story.
  • We do a lot of making inferences.
  • We want students to decipher meaning from contexts.
  • We ask them to pose questions about what they’re reading.
  • We want them to identify what’s important and what’s not as important in what they read.

After we had gone around the room several times, and I had filled two sheets of chart paper with their ideas, the teachers were still excited. They had a lot to say, and they radiated enthusiasm.

I then said, “Let’s review each statement, change the reference from reading to math, and see what we discover.” Doing this made some of the teachers uncomfortable. Some admitted that the focus on comprehension and thinking skills that was so prevalent in their language arts instruction was missing from their math instruction. Others noticed that the confidence they felt in articulating what they did during reading instruction didn’t exist when describing their math instruction.

We had an interesting conversation about the relationship between fluency in reading and fluency in math. While comprehension was key to reading fluency, with math they often felt relieved when students could compute accurately. One teacher commented, “Sometimes I know that students don’t understand why they are borrowing or carrying, but I don’t know what to do.” This experience was a start for us to discuss essential questions about math instruction: What are your beliefs about teaching math? What are your goals for the students?

How can we connect literacy and math, so that teachers bring the strengths they have with language arts instruction to their math teaching? How can teachers make links between mathematics and language arts pedagogy that will enable them to engage children with math in the same way they bring children to the wonder of reading?            

One way is for teachers to think about leading classroom discussions in mathematics as they often do when teaching language arts. Probing students’ thinking during math lessons is valuable, so that the goal is not only getting correct answers, but also explaining why answers make sense.

Teachers typically ask students to explain when they’ve given an incorrect answer. “Are you sure about that?” is often a signal to students that their answer is wrong. But it’s important even when their answers are correct to ask: “Why do you think that?” “How did you figure that out?” “Who has a different idea?” “How would you explain your answer to someone who disagreed?” It’s useful to have students comment on their classmates’ answers as well, asking them to explain what a peer said in their own words, or asking students if they have a different way to explain the answer. If students are stuck, it’s sometimes useful to have them turn and discuss the problem with a partner and then return to a whole-class discussion.   

Instructional practices like these support the development of skills and help students cement and extend their understanding.

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