Sunday, June 20, 2010

Reading in Math

Chapter 2 of Literacy Strategies (which, btw, is freely available for you to read at the ASCD website), really made me squirm in my seat. When I was a kid, our pastor used to (and still does) get up on Sunday mornings and preach his heart out. More sermons than I can remember had him saying that when he was praying about and researching for that week's message, that he felt convicted, that God had "really stepped on his (the pastors) toes" that week. After reading this chapter, I knew exactly the feeling that Pastor meant. This book really stepped on my teacher toes this weekend and I feel very convicted as a result.

This book is a collection of essays from a group of teachers, and as such, this chapter was much smoother to read, but very deep in content. The big idea of this chapter is this: Ultimiately, the responsibility in teaching a student to read a math textbook lies with us, the math teachers. Granted, we have not had formal instruction on how to teach reading, but their reading teachers probably haven't had formal instruction on technical texts either. Here's a list of ideas from this chapter and my reaction...

Book: Traditional math instruction is training, not education. Students can perform procedures on cue like a trained animal, but have not really learned the mathematics until they can apply it.
Me: OUCH!! If that didn't step on toes, I don't know what will. This idea really knocked me on my rear and I had to step away from the book for awhile to process. I felt very convicted by this statement. How often do we train them for a standardized test, train them how to use an algorithm, without teaching them the true concept beind the computations? I can think of many examples in Algebra 2 this year where, after feeling beat down by pacing, snow days, family issues, lack of sleep, etc, that I resorted to "here's how you do this problem" rather than the WHY of doing the problem. This statement still has the power to knock the wind right out of me :(

Book: Math texts contain more concepts per sentence and paragraph than any other type of test. The text contains words, numbers, and symbols that must be decoded. The eye must travel in a variety of ways that is unnatural to reading (both left/right, up/down, graphs, charts). While reading, some information is extra and must be discarded by the brain, yet still distracts the reader.
Me: I paraphrased the above of course, but I had never sat down and really analyzed the difficulty in reading a math book. Because, as math teachers, we are (hopefully) math literate, our brains ignore all of the issues that are listed above, but as a young reader, can you imagine trying to tackle that? How overwhelming! This section hit home so much that I had to read part of it to my husband because I had never thought of a math book this way. Another issue that I would add to their analysis is the weight of books - holy moly! Those suckers are HUGE!!! Definitely not the book I'm going to sprawl out beside the pool reading :)

Book: "If we are really trying to help students read and understand for themselves, we must ask them questions instead of explicitly telling them what the text means"
Me: Another big OUCH here. How many of us, when a kid comes up and says "I don't get it", just tell the student what to do, rather than asking questions to lead to understanding? Questions like, "Can you read the instructions to me?" "What does this word mean?" "What is the problem asking you to find?". I try to be good at asking questions, often to the frustration of some students, but there are times, when I'm feeling rushed, or multi-tasking, or whatever that instead of asking questions about what they've read, that I give them too much information. Asking questions is also important because it helps me figure out where a student's misconception lies.

Random other tidbits that I picked up from this chapter:
The language itself poses a huge problem. The same word in Math-speak and in English do not mean the same thing. In addition, small words make a big difference (percent of vs percent off). To further compound the issue, clarity in written and spoken language can create complications for students as well. Vocabulary (or lack thereof) can be a huge issue and graphic organizers can be very useful for students to clarify and organize the information.

Final thoughts:
Like with everything in the classroom, kids learn by modeling. As teachers, we need to model the processes we use to read and decode text. We need to "think aloud" while working through problems so that kids have a working example of how to tackle problems on their own. We need to break down the text into manageable "bite-sized" pieces and ask questions along the way to demonstrate the thinking process.

Gosh, after this chapter, I may have to find something more light-hearted to read... my toes *still* hurt!!!

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