Math Plus Literacy Minus Writing Does Not Equal True Math Literacy

September 27, 2009 at 8:36 pm | Posted in uncategorized | 2 Comments

(Authored by Matt Marion)

I was searching online to promote some thought and I came across Visual Thesaurus which is a website I learnt about as an undergraduate student. (Click here to go to the homepage.)

I found this article rather interesting as Shults, defined literacy as: “the development of a set of interrelated skills that include reading, writing, speaking, viewing, listening, and questioning; all leading to the ability to critically assess and use information.” This semester we have focused on reading. I agree with this quote, there is more to ”content area literacy” than we have discussed in class. Content area literacy is more than just reading. One of Shuts’ subheadings is “read, write, and speak about math.” This subheading just screamed to me. I believe literacy is not literacy if writing is not included.

Early on students learn the language of mathematic (and science), often by rote exercises, memorization, or imitating their teacher. Like the English language, I believe students pick up on this, just as they learn to say “mommy” or “daddy” and begin to slowly learn and understand new language. Most of the time learning new language is by association, young children quickly pick up “cookie.” We begin to associate addition or plus with the symbol “+” and “-“ with subtraction or minus as English learners. This continues on until we start getting to more abstract concepts. This is where communication really comes into place. National and NYS math standards (PDF) incorporate communication:

Students will: (1) organize and consolidate their mathematical thinking through communication; (2) communicate their mathematical thinking coherently and clearly to peers, teachers, and others; (3) analyze and evaluate the mathematical thinking and strategies of others; (4) use the language of mathematics to express mathematical ideas precisely.

Why is writing important to math and science? Seto and Meel (2006) conclude that writing can give insight into what students have learned and what they understand of a given concept. To me writing is important because it is an essential piece of mathematics. The homework assignments where students may repetitively solve equations or what have you ask students to use mathematical writing and language. Mathematical writing follows a specific order. Writing promotes thinking and as we write our blogs or comments, we actively engage in thinking! Writing illustrates comprehension. Writing can also easily be incorporated into homework assignments, it has also been incorporated into regents examinations. In January 2006 (PDF), the Mathematics A regents asked students to write down an irrational number and to explain why it is irrational (see problem 32). So then, how would you define an irrational number? This is the answer that students are likely getting from us.

So, why is writing important to you in math or science? How can we expand and enhance student writing opportunities?

Article References

Seto, B., & Meel, S. E. (2006). Writing in mathematics: Making it work. Primus: Problems, Resources, and Issues in Mathematics Undergraduate Studies: 16, 204-232.



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  1. Physical writing is a useful exercise because it is deliberate and allows students to review their work to check for any gaps in their reasoning, but I don’t think it’s an essential component of mathematical, or quantitative literacy. First of all, teachers can check the fluency of student understanding by asking them to explain their thinking verbally. It’s safe to assume they could translate their oral communication into writing, and the step is therefore rather trivial.
    More important than using reading and writing, the elements of traditional literacy, to inform mathematics, is teaching the use of number sense and analytical and abstract thinking to inform the way we evaluate arguments presented in various forms in a variety of academic and non-academic settings. Having students apply their knowledge of math to readings less obviously related to traditional math curriculum is one way for math teachers to encourage students to make use of their math skills in a wider variety of contexts.
    For thoughtful perspectives on the role of Quantitative Literacy in liberal education see Calculation vs. Context, essays on quantitative literacy commissioned by the Mathematical Association of America. Of particular interest are Robert Orrill’s discussion of humanism’s break with descriptive statistics (as if such positivist thinking were at odds with humanisms normative ideals), Neil Lutsky’s essay on the importance of quantitative literacy across content areas and the need for numeracy to permeate curriculum (taking a page from the playbook of advocates of traditional literacy), and Hugh Burkhart’s argument that quantitative literacy must be taught by math teachers so as not to provide students with uniformed number sense.

  2. I like your example of the Regents A test, where students had to write their answer out, compared to just writing down numbers. In math, one part of the “equation” to understanding is being able to complete specific mathematical problems, which usually involve crunching numbers. A student may be able to complete problems and answer correctly, but how do we know if the students truly understand the concept. One method would be to ask students, and they might be able to answer. Students can also show their understanding through group discourse and teacher observation. As teachers we should be taking it one step further and asking them to write their answers down. After all, does the word of math ever get written down in a text, journal, magazine or article? In conclusion, students will benefit from a deeper understanding of concepts and improved writing skills.
    If students learn the written word of math they may be more likely to use it in their future careers, and may be less likely to avoid math. One method to get students writing about mathematics is by incorporating a math journal into your classroom. This will allow students to not only show their work via numbers, but they could also respond to questions, explain concepts, hypothesize and even have a chance to ask questions through their journal.

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