Reading in Math class…and not just word problems!

October 9, 2009 at 9:30 pm | Posted in uncategorized | 4 Comments

(Authored by Bill Heinsler)

When I was in middle and high school, there were two kinds of books I encountered in my classroom: textbooks and literature/novels the language arts teachers had us work with.  The teachers used the textbooks as the only source of written information in the classroom, never looking to broaden their (or really, our) horizons.  This led to mostly boring classes, with focus only on the information that the authors of the texts included because they thought that it was important – or would help to sell their book! Now, as I am getting closer to having my own classroom and my own students, I want to break this terrible tradtion that so many of us dealt with when we were in school.

In the traditional math textbook, there might be a brief explanation about how a theory came into existence or why a branch of mathematics developed, but usually that only description lasts only a paragraph at best.  Mathematics has been in existence for millenia (thousands of years) – the symbols have changed, but the use of numbers for counting and measuring has been around for thousands of years.  In the book, Zero: The Biography of a Dangerous Idea, the author describes three reasons for the emergence of mathematics: counting sheep, measuring property, and the passage of time.  Also in the book, the author describes a 30,000 year old bone with counting marks carved into it!  While these ideas are very simple and the math was just used for counting, I think that it is very important for students to know that they are studying a discipline that was created well before their great grandparent’s great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great grandparents!

In an article published by the Teachers College at Columbia University (, reading in mathematics is very justly defended:

Math, like other subjects, has history and new areas yet to be discovered. Through reading, students learn the history of how certain formulas came to be and alternate forms of math. One class learned taxi geometry that takes into account the grid street system of New York City, she said. In other forms of geometry, mathematical constraints can make a sphere look like a square.

The article goes on to discuss the importance of reading in any inquiry based classroom, where students play such a major role in constructing their knowledge and understanding.

Inquiry-orientation [inquiry based learning] suggests that knowledge is dynamic and there are more interesting ideas to come from it than what is written already.

With the abundance of excellent written material that is so easily attainable today, the possibilities for bringing in more reading material than just a textbook are nearly limitless.

Note – In doing some searching on the internet for this topic, I stumbled across an excellent resource that lists many trade books that contain great information that can be incorporated into the math classroom, complete with the topic discussed in the book as well as the grade level(s) that the topic/book are appropriate for.  It can be found at:



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  1. I think it’s a great idea for teachers to not only encourage but require students to read material that will help to supplement their understanding in their content areas. I agree with Bill that complete reliance on the textbook without using additional sources can make for a very boring class. Fortunately nowadays, teaching methods are branching out in order to make topics seem more relevant to students’ lives.

    During my high school education, it was almost as though school and anything I did outside of it were mutually exclusive. Examples and definitions were drawn directly from textbooks and copied down on overhead transparencies to then be duplicated in our notes. Examples made sense, but were rarely relevant to anything that happened in my everyday life, and I’m guessing the same goes for many of my former classmates.

    Writing started off as one of my favorite things to do in elementary school, and by the time I completed English during my senior year of high school, it was a subject I grew to hate. My question is: What happened to allowing students to be creative and imaginative with writing assignments? DBQ after DBQ and comparative essay after comparative essay, I just recycled the same words that had been fed to me by the teacher over and over again. It didn’t matter what our interpretation of the novel was if it wasn’t what the New York State Regents exam wanted to know. The curriculum was dry and boring, and it showed not only with me, but with many of my friends as well who had absolutely no initiative when it came to writing essays by the end of high school.

    Students need to be allowed to explore their own interests and teachers must find a way for them to pertain to the content of their courses. We have read through some great examples in the Subjects Matter book, and activities such as the RAFT allow students to be creative while still learning about a topic. I understand that it is not possible to make every single lesson applicable to some part of a student’s life outside of school, and certainly some definitions and concepts may be better learned from a textbook. Still, I could probably count the number of creative writing assignments I had from grades 7-12 on my hands. The same goes for the number of times I used manipulatives in math, as well as the number of assignments in history that didn’t involve outlining a chapter. Certainly, we can do a better job of finding new and meaningful activities and text resources that not only help students to understand, but help them to want to understand.

  2. I’ve had a similar experience to the dry textbook-reading-only math classroom.
    However I’ve also had experience with teachers who use math text resources that are meaningful and dynamic. Unfortunately these experiences are few and far between.
    My first exposure to math reading beyond text books was my senior year of high school. My teacher recommended that I read Flatland. This book was a story about a two dimensional figure, his exploration of the first and third dimensions, and how he struggles to accommodate these new ideas. It blew my 17 yr old calculus brain! I was even more shocked to find out that it had been written even before my great-grandparents were born (1884)! This gave me my first inkling as to how OLD some math is. Which, thinking about that now, is a little disgusting. Do our students go through 13 years of school without realizing any of the history about math?
    Flatland is certainly a book most high school students could read, and I would recommend it to any geometry teacher. I believe that I have retained more about math from that book than I did from my calculus class!
    Asking students to read this book the summer before their geometry class would give them questions about geometry to bring to school on the first day. It will whet their appetite for math so to speak. And many of these questions could be answered through exploration or inquiry in their geometry class.
    Thank you Bill for that fantastic link for books!
    Does anyone else have any suggestions about text resources that would encourage reading and literacy in math?

    • The CA site linked on our wiki has fantastic literature connections for both math and science.

  3. iam not clever for math subject

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