A study reports that a reading teacher with little math background produced greater progress with her students in solving mathematical word problems than did a math teacher with little reading background. Richard Culyer (Coker College, South Carolina) suggests that teaching strategies common to reading can sometimes be used to improve student performance in mathematics.
Comprehension overlooked in later grades
Students must be able to recognize basic sight words in order to understand directions and deal with written math problems. This need is clear at the 1st and 2nd grade level but, perhaps, is overlooked in teaching older students.
Culyer recommends using index cards to study words which appear in math assignments. Where possible, words are taught by picture or diagram. Otherwise, simple sentences are used with the target word appearing near the end of the sentence so that the student can make use of content cues. Words should be presented several days before they appear in assignments.
Apart from knowing how to read words, students must understand what the specific math vocabulary means. Research shows that mathematics vocabulary is the most difficult of all content areas. Math vocabulary includes words specific to the study of math as well as words which have different meanings when used in a math context (such as set or product). Abbreviations and symbols need to be considered as vocabulary also.
Give strategies for solving word problems
In order to improve the students’ strategies for attacking word problems, Culyer recommends a procedure similar to one used to check reading comprehension:
1. Read the entire problem twice.
2. Decide what the problem is asking for and in what form the answer must be expressed.
3. Estimate the answer.
4. Solve the problem showing all your steps.
5. Change the units if necessary.
6. Compare your answer with your estimate.
7. If the answer is very different, rework the problem without looking at your first attempt.
8. When the answer is satisfactory, label it.
In summary, there is a need to recognize that effective strategies in reading instruction can be appropriate for mathematics as well. Ensuring that children are able both to read words they encounter and to understand specific math vocabulary will increase their ability to comprehend directions, explanations and word problems, and will thereby improve their performance.
“Reading and Mathematics Go Hand In Hand” Reading Improvement Fall 1988 pp. 189
Published in ERN March/April 1989 Volume 2 Number 2