Wednesday, December 18, 2013

Math has its own Language

“Oh, you poor thing. We had one of those at our school. I told her we don’t need to write essays in math class. Math has its own language.”

This was the response from a math teacher when I told him about my new job description as an instructional coach charged with helping spread literacy across the content areas.  

I just listened. I hadn’t even started the role and honestly couldn’t articulate what literacy would look like in a math classroom.

But what he said struck me: “Math has its own language.” What an interesting and poetic way to describe math.

Here was a person arguing against the idea of literacy in the math classroom, yet the literacy piece was inherent in his response. If a subject has its own unique language, then the students must learn how to use it, and wouldn’t reading and writing be a natural part of that? 

To this day, I don’t know if having students write an essay in a math class is the golden ticket to meeting our literacy goals. But isn’t explaining how you arrived at a particular answer part of the learning process? Isn’t learning to breakdown a problem (possibly by writing your thoughts on how to solve it) a way to solidify understanding?

Literacy for Life

One thing we can all agree on is that if students aren't able to read or write effectively, they aren't going to be able to learn the content. In fact, they aren’t going to be able to do a lot of things effectively.

Think about all of the information through which we navigate daily that requires reading and writing, such as reading and responding to emails, paying bills, analyzing data, reading contracts, writing lessons and sub plans, reading maps and signs to get somewhere...oh wait, we have SIRI and GPS, I retract my last example; you get my drift though.

For this reason and more, we will be focusing on literacy strategies to improve student comprehension on the January 6th staff development day. All content areas will walk away with two literacy strategies that will help students be able to engage in a text/problem and then write about their understanding. 

Writing is Thinking put to Paper

Annotating is the fancy ELA word for writing your thoughts as you are making sense of a text or problem. Annotating isn't a finished product, but it’s a check on whether a student really “gets” something. If a student can’t get it, they won’t be able to solve the problem or write the essay. They will be stuck.

Although annotating is an informal type of writing, it’s extremely valuable.

I wonder how many of us do it naturally. I know that I have to underline, highlight, or make notes of things as I read, especially if they are dense or technical. But many students don’t naturally do this for multiple reasons.

1.  They don’t know how. Maybe they learned somewhere along the way, but it hasn’t stuck with them.

2.  They don’t think it’s valuable to understanding. “I got this Miss. I don’t need to take notes.” But the final product reveals that they did not get it.

3.  It makes their brain hurts. If writing is thinking, then annotating is forcing us to think as we engage with something. Students push back, and we must push through this if we are to see gains in achievement.

How can we encourage students to value annotations? It starts with you. We will discuss this and more on January 6th.

So Now What?

You are the experts in your content area, and we need your help getting this right.

For our literacy day on January 6th, you will be grouped by content. Molly Koch, Wesly Guzzetta, Dusti Rhodes, Laura Lensgraf, Erica Robinson, and I will be rolling out literacy strategies that we think will be helpful for increasing student thinking.

We have tried to make them specific to your content area, but in order for the strategies to be truly successful, we need you to take them and make them your own. We need willing experimenters, Literacy Scientists so to speak, to implement strategies for a sustained amount of time--not for a day or a week—and let us know how it goes.  

Department and team planning will take up the afternoon of January 6th, and we are asking for teams and departments to continue to include weekly writing in their lesson plans, and also include reading strategies, such as annotation, when they assign reading.

 Have a well deserved holiday break with your family and friends, and I look forward to seeing you in January! 


  1. Reading through your post made me think. I use lots of instructional videos in my content...what if I had the students annotate that? Just a thought. We do lots of reflective blog posts, but not much annotation. I'm going to incorporate that next semester. I'll let you know how it goes!

    1. Yep, vidoes, art, images...all can be used as "thinking prompts" that get kids writing. Good point Estie!

  2. I thought you were going to be the champion of Edmodo, yet here we are on your BlogSpot. I'm glad I don't teach math because I would be lost on how to make the kids write in that class. High five for the humanities. I bet a math teacher never had to say, "Dang, I have a stack of essays thisssssssssssssssssssssssssssss big to grade!" Whatever ya'll come up with I will welcome it in my classroom.

    1. I am using Edmodo! But I am at heart a champion of literacy! The technology is merely a vehicle to get to the literacy :)

      I'm sure you will let us know what you think of the strategies Ronald. You're never one to be shy about what you think ;) And how they went over in your class.

  3. I use annotations in my ESL classes. They know very little English, but they use the vocabulary words they have learned. Even New Comers can use the subject terms they must learn and highlight or explain what that use is in their reading? They can be given sentence stems like "The (operation)__ used is _(addition)_" ; or "Water becomes ( a gas)_ when boiled at (212 degrees)_____."; or "The equator is a (latitdual line) and the prime meridian is a (longitudial line)" to show they understand the term.When their vocabulary increases so will process of the deeper concept begin to increase. Annotation can show the student and the teacher just how much they are processing, even if the processing is incorrect, and where they are in that process.

    1. Agreed. Annotations become valuable to a student when they know the teacher is actually reading them and commenting on them!

  4. It is really hard to get these students to write anything in my classes. Students think electives should be exempt from writing anything down. I disagree. I see writing as a necessary communication skill.

    1. Absolutely! I used to tell my ELA classes that no matter what career you are entering into, you will use communication skills.

      Agreed, it's difficult to get some students to write. I have noticed that if the teacher takes a special interest in what they are writing by talking to them about it, their motivation increases.

  5. I don't know about you guys, but all this literacy talk is making me wish our winter break was shorter! January 6th can't come soon enough!

    1. I appreciate the enthusiasm Ms. Rhodes.

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  7. I've been pleasantly surprised by the quality of the writing I'm seeing so far from my students' finals.

  8. The students now days are for the most part very concrete thinkers. If it is not there in black and white, they just give up. Why should they think? They can look it up. That is there thinking process. I love technology, but sometimes I think it encourages our kids not to extend their thinking. It's our job to get them to see past the concrete. Not an easy job, but I'm up for the challenge.

  9. Of course, math has its own language. It affects how we incorporate literacy in our classes. We are also often constricted by the world of standardized testing to teaching students how to find an answer when mathematics, like most disciplines, is about teaching a way of thinking and a way of looking at the world. The correct words and the correct language must be taught so that students know how to express their thoughts and think through their processes. They also need the correct symbols.
    I remember my English teachers talking on and on about run on sentences and sentence fragments. I see the same things when I look at my students’ math work. The misuse of the equal sign is the most common grammatical error I see. An example: 3 + 5 = 8 ÷2 =4. It pains me to write this mathematical run-on sentence.
    In my experience, I have found that English teachers have their own way of looking at the world, and fitting mathematics writing to that world may be difficult. Compare and contrast? It can be done. I've done it. My students have done it. Explain your answer, write a letter to a friend explaining how to find the answer, write your answer in complete sentences, and define this that or the other thing-all possible and all helpful in developing both literacy and mathematical thinking.
    Literacy in the math world is complex. The equation example above is one-dimensional, and just like an English teacher needs to teach students how to write a correct sentence, so do math teachers need to teach their students to write correct mathematical sentences. When the problems become two-dimensional-think graphing-the thought processes become much more complex and the symbols much simpler, and the easiest way to bridge those levels of complexity is through words. The problems that my students find the scariest are the ones that involve 3 curves on the same set of axes. It looks and sounds simple, but describing the relationship between those three curves involves a high level of mathematical thinking. Some students can parrot the phrases they have been taught without being able to figure out the relationships between the curves. Some can find the relationship without being able to explain why. Some can do both, and some can do neither.
    Throw in a few real world applications, and reading becomes an issue. Deciphering the problem and then applying the mathematics is challenging, particularly if the problems are written without the cue words that imply multiplication or division (or differentiation or integration). A problem that requires students to visualize a three-dimensional object brings a multitude of new problems which you can only fully appreciate if you have watched them try to do it.
    Do I teach literacy in my classroom? I teach literacy when I make them use the equal sign correctly. I teach literacy when I ask them why. I teach literacy when I make them read a problem out loud. I teach literacy when I force them to use symbols correctly and in the proper sequence. I teach literacy when I make them answer certain types of questions by following a set formula for the words and symbols that they use. I teach literacy every time that I teach them a new definition and ask what would be different if just one word is left out. I teach literacy every time that I make students translate the written word into a three dimensional model. Literacy is not the same in a math classroom as it is in an English classroom, and it shouldn’t be.

  10. I agree Denise.

    Literacy = Thinking. We are teaching kids how to think, and how to navigate the unique "language" of our different content areas.

    I believe that there are some commonalities between content areas, but I don't believe in a one size fits all literacy strategy; I don't believe that we need to do the same things in a math classroom that we do in an English one.

    I do believe that I will need experts (such as yourself ) from the other content areas who will show me what literacy looks like in the other subject areas and help me to increase it, so that we can increase student learning.

  11. Great presentation today! I tried to see this blog on my home computer and got a weird message, but I can see it now. 1+1= __ .

    1. Yeah, my computer is acting weird too. I had better luck using my Mac for the blog. Here's to new computers! And thanks for the feedback!