George Lucas Educational Foundation
Critical Thinking

6 Ways to Improve Students’ Math Literacy

Middle and high school math teachers can use these ideas to build students’ reading comprehension and reasoning skills using real tasks like budgeting.

March 11, 2024
miracsaglam / iStock

While a lot has changed in math instruction over the years, the idea that students need to be math literate has been constant. Being math literate means much more than calculations. Life events such as buying a home, paying taxes, or even estimating how much you’ll spend on groceries require modeling and reasoning skills.

State and district tests often include problems that are real-world based, and that means that students will need to use reading comprehension, along with math skills, in order to show proficiency. This can be particularly difficult for students with learning disabilities, those who have had interrupted schooling, and/or emergent multilingual learners. It’s imperative that math teachers develop a tool kit to help students decipher the math moves needed for such problems.

Through my dissertation research and my many years of teaching mathematics with great math teachers, I have found simple ways to help students become more math literate. Here are some practical ideas on how teachers can help students become math literate, from the perspective of Algebra 1 teachers from various backgrounds.

6 Ways to Help Students Gain Math Literacy

1. Use sentence frames. Sentence frames are a simple way to help students of all backgrounds learn how to state their answers and ask any questions they have about a word problem. Teachers can post sentence frames on a board or even on students’ desks for easy access. Here are some examples:

  • “I agree with this answer because ____.”
  • “I believe the answer is ____ because ____.”
  • “I showed my work by ____.”
  • “One strategy that may be helpful is ____ because ____.”

2. Bring back the highlighter. Many Algebra 1 teachers agree that the highlighter is a great way to help emphasize learning in mathematics. The highlighter gives students control of the parts of the problem that they find important. A good suggestion is to demonstrate the use of highlighting key words and have highlighters available for every task and assessment. It also helps students see the patterns in math problems.

3. Speak “algebra.” Students in all math classes need to be speaking math in their classes. It’s important to use the appropriate vocabulary words that pertain to the lesson. This is particularly important as students see formal math language in textbooks and standardized tests. Yes, breaking down the vocabulary for comprehension is a great tactic, but bringing it back to the standard math vocabulary is how we make connections.

4. Use word walls. The word wall was an important part of many math classrooms a few decades ago. They made sure that students saw math words that related to a particular topic being taught. For example, when introducing a polynomial unit, teachers would often put words such as monomial, trinomial, and polynomial on the word wall.

Many Algebra 1 teachers feel that having the visual is most important as students learn about new topics. Students need visual reminders. One suggestion was for students to “own” the word wall by passing out the words in advance and having them hang up each word as it was introduced throughout the unit. Students can make the words artsy and creative in an effort to personalize the resource.

5. Provide foldables or graphic organizers. The use of foldables in the math classroom is a game changer for many students, especially in the post-pandemic era. These low-tech student- or teacher-made “books” constructed out of folded paper provide learners with a handy place to write down the main concepts introduced in a unit. Students have been so used to math technology that there is a need to bring them back to tactile methods.

Providing a foldable to sum up or even begin a unit is a cost-effective method and allows students to use paper and scissors in a creative way to refer to math vocabulary and common word problems. You can find lots of free ideas for foldables online, and there are sites that sell them as well. Some of the designs are very creative and bring a bit of visual art into your math classroom.

6. Have students write relevant word problems. Every time there’s a new curriculum or textbook, word problems get a refresher to connect with the current generation, but there’s no reason why students can’t make up their own. Allow them to write their own word problems, using the context you’re teaching. Not only will students own their own learning, but also they will be able to use critical thinking skills to combine math, vocabulary, and everyday life to further their understanding.

Making the math classroom become a laboratory of reading and math enables students to become owners of the learning process. Students can be math literate, which will allow teachers to facilitate learning processes with all types of word problems, and consequently improve math scores and prepare students for the world of infusing mathematics into their everyday lives.

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  • 6-8 Middle School
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