"But I Teach Math!" the Journey of Middle School Mathematics Teachers and Literacy Coaches Learning to Integrate Literacy Strategies into the Math Instruction

By Phillips, Donna C. Kester; Bardsley, Mary Ellen et al. | Education, Spring 2009 | Go to article overview

"But I Teach Math!" the Journey of Middle School Mathematics Teachers and Literacy Coaches Learning to Integrate Literacy Strategies into the Math Instruction


Phillips, Donna C. Kester, Bardsley, Mary Ellen, Bach, Thomas, Gibb-Brown, Kathleen, Education


There was a time mathematics teachers focused on teaching the subject matter and nothing else. If teachers understood the symbols, models, proofs, and the language of the mathematical strands, they would be considered "a good teacher." Increasingly, there is recognition that reading instruction needs to be part of mathematics instruction (Burns, 2006; Fuentes, 1998; Meaney & Flett, 2006). Part of this recognition is that test results of the National assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) have only fluctuated slightly in recent years (National Center for Educational Statistics, 2003). Only 32 percent of eighth graders have attained a "proficient" level on reading scores leaving many children who are not as fluent in reading material, making inferences, and thinking critically as teachers expect or would like (Richardson, Morgan & Fleener, 2006). NAEP results and increased emphasis on standards have focused attention on the need for literacy instruction to permeate every grade and classroom.

What is it that makes math so difficult to read? First it is important to realize that mathematics is a "language" all its own. The reader needs to understand the symbols that represent mathematics concepts just as a reader must understand how letters represent sounds. They must also be able to understand syntax (sentence construction or word order) of a mathematical "sentence" just as one must understand the syntax of English, if that is the language that is being read/spoken. Fuentes (1998) argues that unlike other text where authors elaborate their points, each word and symbol in mathematics text must be read and understood with precision. In short, reading in mathematics is dealing with two languages simultaneously.

Another difficulty is the vocabulary of mathematics. Often words that are common in the English language may have a different meaning in mathematics, referred to as "overlap" by Barton and Heidema (2002) such as "plane", "difference", "odd", or "radical". A number of middle school literacy coaches expressed these ideas; "I was surprised how many of the words had a different meaning in math. I never thought of that before. As a literacy specialist I never looked at math as its own language until we sat down and really looked at it."

Text structure is also a challenge. Mathematics writing is succinct. Each sentence often contains a lot of information with little or no redundancy and often contains text and numerals or symbols (Kenney, Hancewicz, Heuer, Metsisto & Tuttle, 2005). The organization and structure of it is different from the texts that most students learn to read from, and very few are taught in explicit and direct ways how to read it. Math textbooks tend to contain varying sidebars that include reviews, definitions, historical facts, real word connections or practice questions. (Barton & Heidema, 2002; Kenney et al., 2005). This kind of writing is difficult to read for those who are proficient readers, but even more daunting for those who struggle.

By teaching all of the students the unique demands of mathematical texts and ways to deal with them, they should improve in their ability to do and communicate their mathematic understandings. Adding to the difficulties for struggling readers and writers, teachers trained as content specialist do not have extensive training on how to teach the higher level language and literacy skills or special needs strategies which are needed in today's classrooms (Richardson et al., 2006). One middle school literacy coach explained, "We are experts in our field not experts in content." A lead math teacher concurred by stating, "As a math person I didn't think literacy was all that important in my classroom. I didn't see the big relationship. They were kind of at opposite ends of the spectrum." This article provides a description of a project designed to address these realizations and ways in which math teachers and literacy coaches could work together to improve the mathematics and literacy skills of their students. …

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