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Success in Math Starts with Reading

The science of teaching and learning on math education is crystal clear – there is an undeniable and intimate link between reading comprehension and math achievement. Back in 1998, middle school math teacher, Peter Fuentes, enlightened us to the fact that effective reading, and all of the behaviors that go along with it, is a fundamental skill on the road to success in mathematics.

We must acknowledge that reading in a mathematical context (i.e., word problems, mathematical textbooks) is inherently different than other types of reading. The content presented in a math setting is often information-dense and compact. Additionally, math concepts can be abstract and difficult to concretize. Another complicating factor is the fact that math has its own language that some students may find difficult to master. Some terms are unique and students must become conversant with terms and symbols that are new to them. Some terms are familiar, but used with completely different meanings. In these circumstances, it is not difficult to understand why some students view math as a frightening and mysterious subject that they have little chance of understanding.

Fortunately, the math education literature has provided a variety of instructional techniques to improve students’ math reading comprehension and retention skills. These include math journaling, math-specific vocabulary exercises, and integration of math vocabulary and concepts into other subjects (e.g. language). We can look to a middle school ESL (English as a Second Language) teacher to see one of these techniques in action. In a journal exercise, she provides the students with a list of lesson-related math vocabulary words. Students are then required to write a paragraph using as many as the words as possible. This exercise requires students to demonstrate a level of understanding of targeted concepts sufficient to construct meaningful writings.

The example above is seen in a middle school context, but the idea can be expanded and scaled to any level of math education. It is important to for us to help students to embrace the language of mathematics. With fluency, students can approach math problems (word and otherwise) with an understanding and confidence that leads to improved math performance. The following sources may be useful for a better understanding of the relationship between reading and math.

  • Fuentes, Peter. (1998) Reading Comprehension in Mathematics. The Clearing House, 72(2), 81-88.

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