George Lucas Educational Foundation
Critical Thinking

3 Ways to Get Students to Write About Math

Teachers can use simple, effective methods to guide young students to demonstrate their understanding of math concepts.

September 22, 2023
ZUMA Press Inc / Alamy

When elementary students are given opportunities to write about what they learn, they’re more likely to understand and retain complex information. Yet, while the benefits of having students express their thinking in writing are well known, many elementary math curricula don’t incorporate writing activities.

“Teachers who include writing experiences in their classrooms set the stage for active problem-solving, invention, and discovery,” says Department of Education researcher Vicki Urquhart, who believes that when students write about math, they “get a chance to express new knowledge and skills in their own words, organize their thinking about the content, share their ideas, experience a creative side of mathematics, and learn to value the act of writing.”

In addition to benefiting students, writing about math helps teachers to assess their students’ thought process. When a student correctly states that “seven plus six equals 13,” a teacher can assume that the student knows the procedure of how to add single-digit numbers. However, what if a student were also asked to explain why seven plus six equals 13? The student’s written response is a window into how they’re thinking about math and helps a teacher to identify any potential gaps in their understanding.

How can you incorporate writing activities into your elementary math lessons? You can start by trying these three effective strategies.

Strategy 1: Think-Notice-Wonder

Think-Notice-Wonder (TNW) activities are an open-ended yet structured way to get elementary students to express their thoughts about math in writing. 

For this activity, students are presented with a visual graphic typically related to whatever math topic students are currently learning, along with the prompts I think…, I notice…, I wonder…

For example, after learning about the number line, students observe a pain scale graphic and are prompted with these questions: What do you think? What do you notice? What do you wonder?

Allow time for your students to carefully analyze and think about the graphic before they start writing. They can then write about how the pain scale resembles the number line where values increase from left to right. You can prompt them to think about why zero isn’t included on the pain scale, question how pain scales are used by medical professionals when assessing patients, and wonder about other real-world applications of number lines.

TNW activities are effective because they encourage students to be more attentive when observing mathematics, promote curiosity, and allow students to identify their own misunderstandings. Since TNW activities are open-ended, there’s no single correct answer, so students can participate without the fear of being wrong. 

If you’re looking to incorporate TNW activities with your elementary students, you can have them record their responses in a math journal or by using this student response template that I created. 

Strategy 2: Write Your Own Word Problems

This writing activity requires students to apply their understanding of math concepts by creating their own word problems. Give students a math topic or skill and ask them their own corresponding word problems and answer keys. Encourage students to be creative and to incorporate their real-life interests and areas of knowledge.

For example, when learning about adding and subtracting fractions, students can write word problems involving recipes they are familiar with, statistics and scores related to sports that they play, and distances between locations they frequently travel to and from. Once students have completed their word problems, they can swap with a partner and solve each other’s problems. This activity supports creative thinking, reinforces real-world applications of math, and encourages collaboration and peer learning. 

Strategy 3: Explain it Like I’m 5

Albert Einstein has a famous quote: “If you can’t explain it simply, you don’t understand it well enough.” Explain It Like I’m 5 (ELI5) activities put Einstein’s wisdom into practice by challenging elementary students to verbally explain a given math concept in such a way that a 5-year-old could understand.

For this activity, you can task students to write an explanation of whatever math concept they’re learning as if they were teaching it to a kindergarten student.

For example, after a lesson on comparing fractions, students would be challenged to explain what fractions are, how to simplify them, and what it means when fractions are equivalent. Because students are tasked with explaining their understanding to a 5-year-old, they will have to be thoughtful, organized, and creative. Students might choose to compare fractions to pizzas or cookies being cut into equal-sized pieces and equivalent fractions as proportionally sized pieces.

ELI5 activities are effective because they encourage students to break down complex math concepts into simpler terms, reinforce foundational math skills and vocabulary, and become more confident in their abilities. When students can explain their understanding of math simply, they’re more likely to develop deep understanding.

If you’re looking to incorporate ELI5 activities with your elementary students, you can have them record their responses in a math journal, or you might consider using this helpful student response template that I created.

When you include more writing activities in your math lessons, students will have more opportunities to express their thoughts and ideas in their own words, be creative, and assess their own understanding, which makes learning math active, meaningful, and engaging.

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  • Critical Thinking
  • Communication Skills
  • Math
  • K-2 Primary
  • 3-5 Upper Elementary

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