Elementary students working on a word math problem

A Game-Changing Practice Fuses Math and Literacy

A program that scaffolds math with reading and writing has a formerly struggling elementary school in the Bronx dramatically outperforming the state in math.

May 7, 2019

When Concourse Village Elementary School (CVES) opened in 2013 in the wake of the planned phaseout of P.S. 385, which the New York City Department of Education had tagged with a D, students were struggling academically.

“When we arrived, we found a major deficit across all content areas,” said incoming principal and school founder Alexa Sorden, who was particularly alarmed by the reading scores. “The first year was challenging because we were trying to come up with a plan and say, ‘OK, how are we going to make sure that all the children are reading on grade level so that they’re prepared?’”

Sorden, a former literacy specialist and teacher, felt that a strong foundation in reading and writing underpinned success across all content areas—and she made it the school’s mission to be literacy-first. Today, students employ collaborative literacy strategies to support science and social studies units, for example, and bring their narrative skills to bear while making predictions and inferences as they analyze artwork.

In mathematics, a subject area not traditionally associated with literacy, Concourse Village has developed an especially innovative model that reinforces both reading and computational skills. Students tackle tough mathematical word problems through two literacy strategies: a group reading exercise that relies on what Sorden calls “the power of repeated reading,” and a problem-solving procedure developed by Exemplars, Inc, along with the problems, that requires students to produce an organized body of written artifacts.   

Despite the statistics stacked against them—the school is situated in the poorest congressional district in the nation, and 96 percent of children at CVES are on free and reduced lunch, while 15 percent are homeless—students are now outperforming the averages in both New York State English and math exams by over 40 percent.

What are the details of the math program? We visited the school and spoke to Sorden and fourth-grade mathematics teacher Blair Pacheco at length, and we provide an outline and some video of the school’s practices below.

Translating Math Into Words, and Back Into Numbers

In math classes, CVES students approach challenging word problems by reading, annotating, and writing to tease out the meaning—breaking the problems down into smaller parts and using the power of storytelling and narrative to bolster their insights. Word problems are above grade level to ensure that students are stretching to master difficult concepts.

Before considering solutions to a problem, the students start small by trying to clarify what it is actually saying. Numbers and questions are stripped out, and the class uses a three-read protocol that fosters both group and individual learning: The teacher reads the problem, then the students read it, and then everyone reads it together.

“Sometimes when kids see numbers, they start to get confused,” said Pacheco. “If we take out those numbers for a brief moment, they’re reading it as a story and they’re getting that understanding. It’s no longer just about math.”

For example, in one of Pacheco’s classes, students read: “Jaci and Emma are playing a game on their computer where a player earns points.” Students relay the gist of the story back to the teacher, who writes it on the board for reference.

The word problem—now with numbers included, but still without the questions that ask students to perform calculations or mathematical comparisons—is then shown on the interactive whiteboard, and the students read it aloud and process the information together.

One student annotates the word problem on the board with input from the class—underlining important information, including numbers and key words. In the example from Pacheco’s class, students underline the repeated word round to indicate that there will likely be several rounds of numbers that might require a comparison or a computation.

Based on the annotations, students then create a “What I Know” chart as a class. For example, Pacheco’s students agree on how many points each player made in each round.

Using the information they have already identified, students hypothesize about what questions might be asked. For example, Pacheco’s students might guess that the question would ask the total number of points for all rounds. Brainstorming possible questions requires students to call on prior knowledge about what they can do with the numbers—compare through greater or lesser than or equal signs, for example, or compute by adding or subtracting.

Finally, the actual question is revealed on the board—and the class reads the whole problem aloud.

From Group to Independent Problem-Solving

After rereading the above-grade-level problem as a class, each student receives a word problem printout differentiated based on their ability. Students work through a five-step problem-solving procedure based on the reading protocol they use as a class. They work independently, or in small groups if they need more support. A checklist of the steps guides them through the problem.

Math Problem-Solving Procedure
Download a PDF of the problem-solving procedure steps.
pdf 267.54 KB

Students scaffold their understanding—and make it visible to themselves and their teachers—by underlining important words, circling the question the problem is asking, and then writing an “I Have To” statement that clarifies what the student must do to arrive at the answer. For example, a student might write, “I have to find out who made the most points in each round.”

Then each student devises a mathematical strategy to solve the problem. They might write, “I will use addition,” “I will multiply,” or “I will use the comparison strategy.”

Student Work
A completed 5th-grade math word problem.
pdf 273.47 KB

Finally students solve the problem and double-check their work. They write their answer in a complete sentence, put a box around it, and label it “answer.” They write out an explanation of how they solved the problem using at least two math words, like multiply and add, and then write a complete sentence making connections to previous math they have learned. They might comment on an observation they made, a pattern or rule they found, a different strategy they could have used, or a comparison they noticed. Writing their takeaways in words reinforces their prior knowledge and how it can be applied in new ways.

“We ask them to make their thinking visible,” says Sorden, explaining the rationale behind all the writing in her school’s math courses. “Create a plan. Make your thinking visible and clear on paper so that anyone that picks it up is able to make meaning about what you were trying to share. We want them to be able to communicate orally and in writing so that their ideas are clearly communicated with the world.”

The problem-solving procedure and math tasks that CVES uses were developed by Exemplars, a company that provides a library of rich performance tasks and professional development for K-12 schools.

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