Reading in Math? A Tale from Someone Who Survived It

Image Via Timo Kuilder 

For years I have wondered why analyzing mathematical text isn’t a math or reading standard. So many times I have heard, “Well… that student knows how to do the math but can’t read the question. They don’t have a math issue, it’s a reading problem.” Yet in all my years of teaching ELA I can not recall meeting an ELA teacher who analyzes mathematical text with their students… and anytime I have brought it up I am looked at with a dazed expression. 

I believe one reason is because as reading teachers many of us have believed the lie that we are bad at math. We can’t possibly teach anything mathematically related because it’s not our “giftings”. And as math teachers we just believe it’s not our responsibility. 

So whose responsibility is it to teach our students mathematical reading? While you debate that in your mind I will go out on a limb and share some strategies of “how” to jump start this work in your classroom whether you teach math or not.  

Learning to Read in Math 

I stumbled upon a great strategy called, Numberless Word Problems ten years ago. This was born from the brain-child of Brian Bushart, a math curriculum coordinator from Texas. His strategy was simple. Take the numbers out of the math problems to identify the students comprehension problem. When I took all the numbers out of my problems I realized that I indeed was still a reading teacher even though I wasn’t teaching in the ELA classroom. Imagine if all math teachers realized this. 

Take this example below from 5th grade bandwidth: 

A factory in Detroit, Michigan built 412 sport cars each month for a year. How many sports cars did it build in the year? 

This question does not tell my students explicitly how to solve this problem or even what to do with the information that has been given to them. The pre-teaching on this question alone could be several days. They need background knowledge of key vocabulary. 

But for time sake, here is the same question with the numbers taken out of it for analyzing. 

A factory in Detroit, Michigan built sport cars each month for a year. How many sports cars did it build in the year?

Move 1: Identifying Main Idea

After removing the numbers I have my students find the main idea of the text. I ask my students, “what is the author trying to convey to us?”

A response from student A: 

 “A factory in Michigan builds cars each month for a year.” 

A response from student B;

“Michigan builds sports cars each month for a year.” 

After identifying the sentence’s purpose in context we analyze the question being asked in the text. 

Move 2: Identify the Question

“What is the interrogative sentence?” 

I began by telling my students that to interrogate is to ask questions and when we are mathematicians and scientists we are constantly trying to find answers to questions. We have to be able to find the questions and know what is being asked to answer it. 

How many sports cars did the factory build in the year? 

Move 3: Find Context Clues

Following our conversation about interrogative sentences we get down to the bottom of  what the question is asking us to do and what information we will need to solve this problem.  This requires my students to use their text clues.

[A factory in Detroit, Michigan built sport cars each month for a year. How many sports cars did it build in the year?]

A response from student A: The question is asking us to find out how many cars were built in a year in Detroit. 

I need to know how many sports cars are built each month for an entire year.

Final Turn: Inferring

Lastly, after I give my students the information they need to solve, students make an inferences based on the information given and their previous background knowledge on how they are going to use all this information to solve this problem. With that I give them the numbers necessary to solve and they prove their thinking with their evidence. This is how I begin teaching reading in math. See examples below.

Strategies: Numberless Word Problems/ 3-Read

Image Via PngTree

There are two amazing resources to begin this work in your ELA classroom or math classroom. Both are easy enough to implement even as a morning problem to discuss together. 

Numberless Word Problems: Brian’s strategy asks students to go through the list of steps I listed in the section above. He asks the student to analyze an interrogative sentence [word problem] And identify three things: The Question, Main Idea, and details needed to solve. Students also can be given numbers to solve the problem once they have followed the analyzing steps. This is not necessary to complete the task. 

Here are some examples of numberless problems I have used in my class: 

Template for Numberless Word Problem

3-Read is another strategy which was created by SFUDE. This activity gives students word problems to choose from. I tend to create problems and scenarios that I know are applicable to my students lives. Sometimes I even use their names. The more relatable math is to my students the deeper the understanding– the same goes for reading too. Our students have to see themselves in the work we present them. 

Students select a sentence. Then students go through a list of questions to analyze the problems as readers. 

  1. What is the situation about in the text
  2. What mathematical information is given to you in this text 
  3. What mathematical questions could you ask with this text 

This is a very interesting strategy because it opens the door to conversations about how to craft mathematical questions– which Numberless Word Problems don’t allow for. Here is a link to the San Francisco Curriculum under grade level and the unit task is called a Three Read

Connecting Reading to Writing 

       Image via

There are many extensions you could possibly do with this activity. 

  • We could change the details of the problems to change the meaning. 

  • Use videos and books to build contextual vocabulary knowledge so that students can have background knowledge before meeting mathematical word problems. 

  • Going through a series of activities that works with the different types of mathematical questions. Reviewing who, what, when, where and why questions. Marilyn Burns is a master at this if you want a great mentor. 

  • Students creating their own mathematical numberless word problems and 3-Reads. This also can be connected to creating their own 3-Act-Tasks by Graham Fletcher. (More on this strategy another time.) This is where the real meat and potatoes comes in where our students use their understanding of contextual mathematical sentence structure to create their own writing!

Whatever strategy you choose we must begin to implement reading into our math classrooms and math into our reading classrooms. It’s time to integrate all subjects. How can we expect our students to write in content if they don’t even know how to read in them? If we know better we should do better (sorry I have now given you no excuses).

Reading in math… you can survive it too.

Please reach out with questions, reflections, and connections in the comments below or on Twitter @Mrsablund. Check out my other articles writing out of the ELA classroom.

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