Critical Thinking

6 Ways to Merge Literacy With Mathematics 

When teachers find creative ways to integrate reading and writing with math curricula, it humanizes the subject matter and allows kids to process unfamiliar material linguistically.

April 21, 2023
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Research has long linked strong reading skills with improved math achievement—which may seem obvious when it comes to typical math tasks like understanding directions on a test, or parsing word problems. 

But literacy skills also support and deepen math understanding in unique and powerful ways. 

“Reading and writing are complex, fundamental, integrative learning skills that should be used to their full potential in math class,” writes Alessandra King, a middle school math teacher in Bethesda, Maryland. For all students, and especially those who “enjoy reading and writing more than the computational side of math,” King says that finding ways to fold literacy into math class gives them “a deeper understanding and stronger appreciation of the usefulness and effectiveness of mathematics.”

Blending the disciplines, when the lesson allows for it, also sets students up to “engage with math in a new—and often far more inviting—way,” explains educator and tutor Chelsea Miro in an article about math read-alouds. “Kids who have struggled with geometry may love the opportunity to write a shape story, for instance—and it might even help them to remember that a square is a type of rectangle but a rectangle is not a type of square.”

Here are six ideas, sourced from teachers and recent research, for merging math and literacy in ways that challenge students’ abstract reasoning and build critical thinking and collaborative learning skills. 

Explore Picture Books

Early-grade math problems tend to be straightforward and linear—much like the picture books that introduce them to literacy concepts. These shared properties make mathematical reasoning fertile ground for early-grade book authors. 

But not all children’s books that feature math are created equal. Just like in language arts classes, text selection is important, say educators Kathleen Crawford-McKinney and Asli Özgün-Koca. The trick is to find options that present a rich mathematical problem that students can work through alone or in groups, and then compare their answers to the solution in the book. 

In one of their favorite examples, Molly Bang’s When Sophie Thinks She Can’t, main character Sophie is challenged to form as many different rectangles as possible using 12 tiles. It’s a low-threshold, high-ceiling problem, offering  a challenge for students across a range of skill levels. For some kids, a related exercise might involve creating their own rectangles using manipulatives and comparing solutions as a class; a more advanced exercise could involve asking them to create squares instead and discussing the differences between shapes.

When designing lessons around picture books, Crawford-McKinney and Özgün-Koca suggest creating content specific questions for students to answer, which will vary by book. But they also favor asking general questions about how math concepts shape the story and how the author establishes this understanding—which can teach students to think more like mathematicians. 

For more book ideas, see former elementary school teacher Chelsea Miro’s list of favorite books for math read-alouds, including more abstract titles like Kate Hosford’s Infinity and Me.

Connect Thinking Through Math Journals

Teachers in subjects like English and science often use journals or logbooks to give students space to record their learning progress, make observations, and brainstorm solutions in a low-stakes format. 

In math class, however, the journals might look a little different, explains former high school math teacher Nell McAnelly, who used them often with her students. “It is a record of personal experience showing what a student tried, what worked and what didn’t, what practices should be continued, and what improvements a student should focus on going forward,” she says. “Consequently, journals can promote initiative and confidence, which we know are gateways to learning.”

There’s still space for written reflections, but also for illustrations, diagrams and charts—making math journals more formal than scrap paper but less polished than an exam paper.

In her experience, students use them to make connections across mathematical ideas and delve into the reasoning behind their answers—much like they might use a journal to analyze a poem or text in language arts. Entries can also be used as discussion prompts for group work, where students can learn directly from one another as they explore new strategies.

Design Math Magazines That Relate to Real-World Topics

In Alessandra King’s math classroom, while writing prompt activities are helpful, she prefers assignments that create strong connections between what students are learning in math class and the real world. “Reading and writing are particularly effective in developing a quantitative understanding of the world around us because they can be used to lead students to reflect on everyday experiences,” King writes.

To harness the benefits of reading and writing, King has students create math magazines, collaborative publications that they compile with summaries they’ve written of math-related articles and images from publications like Scientific American, The Economist, the New York Times’ Upshot section, and the Atlantic. It’s one of her most popular assignments of the year.

King keeps a thick file of articles she’s clipped or printed out that touch on math-related topics—from political gerrymandering to fractals in modern art and using machine learning to predict March Madness upsets—and lets students choose ones that pique their interest. They compose a page-long summary of the piece with special emphasis on the math concepts discussed and package their work with related charts or graphics. 

At the end of the assignment, everyone’s contributions are compiled into a magazine, and King uses a simple rubric to assess their content understanding, clarity of communication, editing, critical thinking, initiative, and creativity. 

Identify and Teach Math Vocabulary

When fifth-grade math teacher Kathleen Palmieri discovered that only about 40 percent of her students could accurately define key math vocabulary (of various levels of complexity), she realized she needed to make learning math terms a regular part of her instruction, Palmieri writes in an article for MiddleWeb.

But rather than simply memorizing a list of words, she found that students needed to understand how the mathematical concept worked before the term itself would stick. In other words, if her students didn’t know how fractions work, learning the definition probably wouldn’t mean much. Additionally, math concepts typically make the most sense when learned in sequential order.

Drawing on ELA vocabulary building skills, Palmieri began asking students to pull out key terms they don’t understand at the beginning of a unit for a math glossary that they add to as they learn each concept. Students also used colorful Post-its to create a math word wall that they add to as they learn new words—and can refer to at any time. Lastly, the class regularly decides on a word of the day or even a word of the week, with students responsible for tallying every time they see the word and describing how it’s used.

Identify Patterns and Connections Via Word Sorts

Another strategy inspired by ELA instruction, word sorts can easily be adapted to math class to help students recognize patterns and relationships between words. Working alone or in groups, students identify each term in a given vocabulary list and sort terms into categories—either ones created by the teacher (known as closed sorts) or that they come up with themselves (open sorts). 

Word sorts can be implemented using mathematical terms, symbols, or even expressions. Students can sort these based on various attributes—say, operation type (addition, subtraction, multiplication, division), geometric shapes (circle, triangle, square), or algebraic properties (commutative, associative, distributive).

To sort a list of mathematical expressions, kids might separate them based on whether they involve addition, multiplication, or both (e.g., the expression 5𝑥 + 3). 

Younger students might perform a similar sort by placing the word “rhombus” into multiple categories, including parallelogram, quadrilateral, and two-dimensional, write Miranda L. Sigmon, Kavin Ming, and Daniel Herring—the authors of a 2022 piece on word sorts for the journal Mathematical Teacher

To drive meaning home, the authors suggest using sentence stems, such as “I think (insert term) goes under the (category name) category because . . .” —which gets students thinking more about the choices they’re making. Model a few examples yourself and split students into small groups to encourage genuine discussion and comprehension.

Encourage Collaboration With Math Circles

Inspired by literature circles, a common practice in ELA, history, and occasionally even science classes, math circles involve assigning roles to students that they perform as part of collaborative work in small groups. The goal is to foster math-related group learning, discussion, and advanced collaboration skills like leadership and flexible thinking. 

In Patricia Kridler’s middle school math classroom, student roles include Situation Summarizer, Vocabulary Master, Idea Guy/Gal, Model Maker, and Computation Kid, Kridler writes in the journal Mathematics Teaching in the Middle School. Since math topics can vary greatly, she often creates new roles depending on the assignment, and asks groups to complete a role worksheet that includes space for every student to share their contributions. After every cycle, she asks students to swap roles.

At first, she assigns simple word problems and lets students take turns in their roles before moving to more complicated or abstract projects that could take several class periods to complete. Typically, students use the role sheets to explain their thinking and their mathematical reasoning in depth, and the Situation Summarizer presents the findings to the entire class. 

Math circles allow Kridler to structure a math task “so that all students get to focus on different aspects of how to solve a problem,” she writes. “Students also develop the skills necessary to become better independent thinkers. In the process, I am learning much about how students think through problems.”

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