Do you speak Math?

May 23, 2010 at 12:31 pm | Posted in uncategorized | 4 Comments

Posted by Donna Clements

I have been thinking a lot about what it means to be literate in Math. It started when I was student teaching; many of my students didn’t have the foundational skills that they really should have mastered in grade school. Instead of lamenting “why can’t these kids read?” I was asking “why can’t these kids do simple math problems?” They were frustrated and so was I. How could I teach them algebraic word problems, ratios, proportions or how to find the slope between two points when they could when they couldn’t successfully add/subtract positive and negative numbers?

How am I supposed to get through the 9th grade curriculum when they don’t understand the 6th grade curriculum? I started to understand what I needed to do when I read the book When Kids Can’t Read – What Teachers Can Do by Kylene Beers. In order to be successful in math you have to understand the language. My students needed to be able to read the text which could be any combination of numbers, symbols, diagrams or words. In the article “Teaching Reading in Math and Science” the author states

Teachers need to incorporate reading and learning strategies that help students activate prior content knowledge, master vocabulary, and make sense of unfamiliar text styles.

I find myself using the “Think Aloud” strategy most often. The hardest part is remembering to include all the steps and to expand on the inferences that are so second nature to those of us that have done a “bajillion” math problems.  I’m curious what other methods or strategies that other people have had success with.

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  1. Now that we have been in our Literacy Class for a whopping total of six classes, I feel that we now have more tools which would help Donna in her quest to help students understand their math word problems.
    She mentioned the Think-Aloud process. That is one method. I sat down, reviewed our list of Literacy Strategies and came up with a few suggestions. My favorite strategy so far was our brief glimpse into Guide-O-Rama (Subjects Matter, page 155). This would allow the teacher her own voice when helping guide the students with what’s important or not. This strategy also offers an insight into how the teacher approaches the problem. Coding might be another method. After the Coding process has been modeled enough with the students, each could create their own best way to pull out and code the pertinent information to be used in the problem’s solution. Another method was mentioned in our class one day: Substitute symbols for the appropriate words within the problem. For example, when one sees the word “of,” in the appropriate situations an “x” could be written. This might help the student to start breaking down the problem in a more concrete manner.
    I feel like I’m too inexperienced to try to add any more. But I can see that if a teacher takes the time to further peruse our list of strategies and if a teacher has a good handle on her students’ individual styles, then almost any word problem can be made to look less intimidating.

  2. My first response is to Donna’s comment about the how to teach a student the 9th grade curriculum when they don’t have a grasp on the 6th grade curriculum. Being a classroom teacher, I can completely connect to that thought. What I have learned through my experience is that the majority of the students are never 100% prepared to move onto the next level of math. A student could pass 8th grade math with a 65%. Does that mean that he or she is ready to do 9th grade Algebra? If you are teaching a Regents level course, or a remedial course, the likelihood is that the majority of your students have some kind of gaps throughout their mathematical learning careers. I am realizing more and more that it is my responsibility as their current math teacher to bridge those gaps because if I don’t try, then more gaps will be created, and the process never-ending. This literacy class has been a great eye-opener to me as a teacher, because I feel like I have been ignoring the issue. I think it is time for us to stop blaming the past teachers, or the students, or whoever, and start taking responsibility for our students’ literacy because we just can’t keep pushing them along. They may not leave us being master mathematicians, but at least we did the best we could making them stronger mathematicians.

    My advice to Donna is that you won’t find out what methods work for you until you are in a classroom yourself with your own unique group of students, because every class is different, and every class/student has different needs. I can tell you that from day one in your classroom, start to implement different types of strategies and see which ones work best so that you can continuously mold and revamp them to fit your classroom needs, I know I am going to start.

  3. When reading your above frustrations, I felt as if you pulled them directly from my own brain. I tutored for an educational center whose primary students were those of low ses recieving funding through NCLB. One of my most challenging students was a 16 year old 8th grader who was trying to prepare for the some regents math exam for the 3rd time. I remember our first session, we were working on some very simple algebra questions when i realized that he didnt understand the rules for working with positive and negative numbers. I can remeber at that moment feeling like this was an impossible task for me to bring him even close to succeeding when he didnt even know basic math, and I found myself falling into the trap of spoon feeding him the answers.

    At the time I wasnt aware that this was not helping him until he bought in a quiz for corrections where he failed a lot of similar questions we had previously worked on. I asked him what happened and he stated that he understood the material when he did it with me but wasnt able to perform on his own.

    It was here I realized that I was taking the wrong approach. I had to shift my approach from teaching him to listening and finding the holes in his knowledge and woeking together to develop meaning. In the beginning he was hesistant to taking over the learning process, but as he became more confident in his own abilities, he performed better on his assignments, and was more eager about attacking challenging assignments.

    In the end I agree with Angela that you have to start somewhere. Even though you may fell like you are fighting a losing battle, if you can help at all to build a students confidence in learning again, they will be more receptive to tackle their challenges.

    I would also suggest allowing multiple learning styles/tools in your classroom. When my brother was in 7 and 8th grade at east high school, he was in the ArtPeace program. In this program they integrated atr, music, and technology in all of their classrooms. In social studies he made a rap about the preamble. Hes now in 9th grade and he still has a well developed understanding of the US constitution.

  4. Donna!
    I think that direct instruction and pre-teaching of symbols, like you would do with vocabulary at the beginning of a unit, is a great way of introducing students to this new “language” and notation. And truly treat it like a new language- because mathematical notation IS a language all of it’s own. Then, before a lesson or homework where students have to read these new symbols or diagrams, access their prior knowledge from your pre-teaching with a warm up or quick game or written assessment.
    Finally, I pulled this from a first grade classroom, is doing a word sort. Or, in a math teachers case, a symbol sort. Give students the symbols they are working with on individual index cards that they have to sort into two or three different categories. An example for calculus might be:

    Integrals:
    *integration symbol*
    *double integration symbol*
    dx
    u du
    v dv

    Derivatives:
    f'(x)
    f”(x)
    f’g+g’f

    etc….

    Anyways-Good luck! Have a great summer!


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