Tuesday, February 26, 2013

Back to the textbook - teaching reading literacy in math class

I am a "no-textbook" teacher. I feel that as a teacher it is my job to understand my students and then develop the classroom materials, activities and practice questions that are reflective of where they are in their progress and understanding. A textbook does not allow this flexibility and uses terms that may not make sense or encourage a student to take ownership over their understanding.

However, after spending the past few years not using a textbook I was wondering if my students were missing any specific skills that their textbook reading counterparts were gaining. But then it hit me, they were not able to develop the skill of reading and understanding a mathematical text. Everything I had created was based on what they had previously learned and was all hands on or discussion based. At no point were they being asked to read and explore a text that was developed for the purpose of being another resources for them to use. So I decided to have a literacy day in my math class.

After looking through the Math and Literacy materials created by the OAME I created a template that I felt would guide my students through their first textbook based reading. My goal was to have the students learn how to read a textbook or resource by first scanning headings, identifying words they already knew and making some judgments about what material they would be reading about. I asked them to use a chunking method to break up their reading and guide their notes. They use the worksheet that I have linked to here.

As a class we have already looked at slope, but by using the counting method using the rise/run - right triangle start. I photocopied a chapter from a textbook that explore the concept of slope through examples, explanations and a summary of key concepts. Their goal was to take notes using the guided worksheet provided and then assess their understanding by completing 12 questions that had been placed around the room as different stations. They could only use their notes to answer each one.

I was amazed with the positive feedback that I got from the class. They all, contrary to what I thought, went straight into the reading portion and followed the guided steps on their own. I did create a mini "book club" of students that I felt may need more support to go through the process with me, but they became independent after only a slight nudge in the right direction. Since they were able to move onto the 12 stations at their own pace, no one felt rushed or that it was a test. In the end of it all they asked that we could do this activity again at some point in the future, all identifying it as a skill that they feel is necessary for them to have but something they have not had the opportunity to practice.

As a math teacher I realize that I don't prepare my students in how to read a mathematical text. We go over how to read and decipher word problems, but never the additional resources that are available to them as students. How can I expect my students to become the independent learners if they are unable to use the online and print resources available with any success. As my teaching practice is mainly based on inquiry and hands on activities and group discussion, I have cut the literacy aspect from my curriculum without noticing. How can I expect my students to learn how to read a math text in their English class? As a Grade 8 they won't make those connections on their own, but be provided with adequate guidance to do so.

Moving forward, I want to do this activity again after we have learned another key concept. I plan to use another textbook so that my students can see a variety of printed sources and next time focus on how to properly read and learn from the examples in the text. In our first attempt I saw that they were unable to properly read and learn from the  examples.

I found it interesting to see that with a change in teaching philosophy (no-textbook and inquiry), my students had challenges with skills I took for granted in my textbook based education. What else am I assuming they must be able to do that without practice or direct instruction they are finding more difficult. Next challenge is checking their answers with those posted in the classroom.


  1. Ruth, you've stumbled across a very important concept here - thanks for sharing this! I love the idea of creating a math 'book club', and infusing literacy into the math curriculum in simple, but important ways. You also open up a great discussion on the role of texts (i.e. foundational knowledge) in the classroom regardless of the subject.

    You should look into the ideas of adaptive release and scaffolding: moving from simple, foundational skills with lots of support, to a more complex, inquiry-based approach with less support as needed.

    I am working on this in my history classroom, and using Understoodit to help gauge the foundational knowledge before asking students to take on the inquiry, more complex tasks.

    Finally, speaking of literacy, here is a great page to investigate more on literacy, and some great resources as well: http://cybraryman.com/literacy.html

    thanks for sharing!

  2. I don't think in all my schooling anyone ever explicitly gave me tools to work with math or science texts. The assumption was that if I could read then I would be fine. To Garth's point, the interesting layer you could add in here would be the diagnostic/formative one. How can you get a quick snapshot of understanding so see if they are getting it. Marrying the traditional with some of the newer data collection methods.

    Garth mentioned - https://understoodit.com/ which I really like. But there is also http://www.socrative.com/ and http://www.edmodo.com/

    Love this post!