Unique Text Reading Challenges for Math Students

May 23, 2010 at 12:35 pm | Posted in uncategorized | 2 Comments

Posted by Peter Parker

The traditional textbook math classes use pose many challenges for students must overcome in order to comprehend the context contained within. Math content knowledge is generally built up upon previous knowledge. The text reflects this building block approach. The text is not written in the typical voice a student recognizes from other subjects. The form of the writing in the text is possibly organized around example problems which contain the use of multiple mathematical symbols, tables or graphs.

The structure of the writing is different from the text the students are accustomed to. The math texts are not in story form. The vocabulary the students are accustomed to read elsewhere is used in novel ways. The texts often contain a high density of conceptual material. In Teaching Reading in Mathematics and Science, M. L. Barton and others state that text style, the organization and presentation of content-affects reading comprehension.

Most math text books are example oriented. There will be sample problems in the text, however there will be intermediate steps to the solutions that will be omitted, with a typical comment such as “we can see the solution to be such”. The students will be responsible to fill the steps in. The students may require significant scaffolding, time and inferences in order to fill in the missing steps to fully comprehend the examples.

The text books use symbols to represent larger concepts.  Dr.  Muench, a St. John fisher College professor, spoke about the use of symbols in our Discrete Algorithm course. He said that the symbols are a method of shorthand, to minimize the amount of written text. However, the symbols require more in-depth thought by the students thereby making the reading more difficult. The symbols used are often Greek letters, again confusing struggling readers. Tables and graphs are another type of content device that the students do not regularly see in there other subjects.

Question for thought: What are some strategies that would help students to overcome these special challenges and why?



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  1. Through all Math textbooks i have ever seen, i defintely see how the reading would be unique. I agree to the statement, that Math is a bulding block process and this is represented in the text books. In Math, if you have trouble with the first chapter, you will probably continue to struggle. However, in Social Studies, if you didn’t do well on the civil war chapter, that doesn’t mean you won’t understand World War I.
    I think in order to assist students with the building block learning, would be reviewing materials from previous chapters periodically to keep the information fresh. It could also be done by having students make posters during the units and hang them up, this would be a quick refresher if they ever needed a reminder.
    Also, when students are learning new symbols, making tables or quick reference sheets for students to look at while they are learning the materials.
    In my own experience, i have found it helpful to have a quick reference for what new symbols mean and new vocabulary words. Helping students relate information to prior knowledge is key for them to understand not only math, but every content area.

    • I agree that reading a math book is much different than what students are accustomed to seeing in other core courses. I believe that learning to speak in the language of mathematics is similar to learning any other foreign language. Keep in mind that just as it takes time to learn Spanish or French it takes time to learn the language of math. We must continue to provide translations from numbers, symbols and graphs to the words that students can understand (ie plain english).

      I always tell my students that mathematicians don’t like to waste time writing things out, so we use symbols to save time. As students continue in their math and science careers they will encounter more symbols. You get used to the symbology. Just as a $ is easily recognizable as money, the greek letter ω is recognized as angular velocity (ok maybe just to those physics or engineering types).

      Math books are a tough read but how many students have ever “read” a math book? I would suggest the Textbook Scavenger Hunt as a strategy to help students learn how to actually use their text book. Prior to starting a new unit you could use the text book to preview some of the types of problems that students will be learning how to solve. Even though problems in the text may not show complete solutions, enough information is provided so that a student can look for solutions on the Internet. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve sucessfully Googled a problem that I’ve forgotten how to do!

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