Instruction & Curriculum

Reinforcing Literacy Skills in Mathematics

I work primarily with students who struggle with mathematics. My students are awesome kids and I would estimate that about 98% of the time, their struggles have little to do with their computation abilities, and more to do with solving word problems and the critical thinking that accompanies them. When I give my students a word problem they are instantly turned off. I hear, “Why are there so many words?!” and “I don’t know what I am supposed to do!” on a regular basis. So, what do you do with discouraged kids who hate word problems? I teach my kids that instead of shutting down when they see a word problem, use some of the strategies we practice in class (that just so happen to cross over from their Language Arts class as well). Here is my list of reading strategies that correlate really well with the mathematics classroom:
Strategy #1: Do a “close read” of the problem
When students are asked to perform a “close read” in the Language Arts classroom, they are asked to examine a piece of text carefully, in order to analyze its meaning. Close reads often involve reading the same piece of text multiple times, looking for clues needed to analyze its meaning. This same strategy can be applied in Mathematics! It is so important that students understand all of the words in a math problem before attempting to solve the problem. If they don’t understand what the question is asking the first time, read it a second time. Highlight the words they are unfamiliar with and talk about them. One way to do this is to read the problem with the student first, and then ask, “What do we know and what is the problem asking us to figure out?” See if your student can explain, in words, what the problem is asking them to do. Have them use a highlighter to highlight what they know in one color, and what they are looking for in another color. Remind them that sometimes we have to read a question multiple times, just like in Language Arts, to be able to understand its meaning.
Strategy #2: Identify key terms
Math vocabulary can be tricky, since the words are not often seen in regular, every day, outside of the math classroom, contexts. That’s why it’s important to highlight key terms and “clue words” during your direct instruction time.
For example, let’s say you are learning about area and perimeter. The calculations for these are pretty simple. To find the area of a rectangle or square, you simply multiply length times width. To find the perimeter of a figure, you just add up the lengths of all the sides. Simple, right? The part my students struggle with is when they are given a word problem and they have to decide if they are asking to find the area or the perimeter of a figure. So, to help them with this, I teach them key vocabulary or “clue words” for each.
Key clues for Area
measured in square units
a household project like painting a wall or tiling a floor
Key Clues for Perimeter
Around the outside
Before I even have my students solve word problems involving area or perimeter, we practice sorting them. First, I will give my students six or seven-word problems, have them read each one carefully looking for keywords. Then, I  have my students sort them into two piles, one pile of “area” problems and one pile of “perimeter” problems. This way they can compare the questions and point out the differences between them.
Strategy #3- Make predictions
Just like when good readers make inferences or predict what might happen next in a story, students should be able to predict or estimate what an answer will look like.
One of the benefits of having students predict an answer to a problem is that it can increase their motivation to find the answer, so they can check to see if they’re right. If they’ve made an estimate, they tend to be a little more invested in the problem.
Another benefit to predicting the answer is that it makes students slow down and think more deeply about the problem. Many of us have seen students start a problem too quickly that they start applying operations that don’t fit the problem! Making an estimate gives them a chance to notice what they already know, about the numbers and the keywords, before they begin their computations.
Strategy #4 – Teach kids to visualize Math
Just like in reading class, when we visualize what we are reading in our heads, we also need to apply this skill in math class.
Many students, who fail at solving word problems, also lack the ability to imagine the situation described in the word problem. Click To Tweet
According to Christopher Isak, a guest writer for the website, “Many students, who fail at solving word problems, also lack the ability to imagine the situation described in the word problem. Because they cannot visualize the problem correctly, they are not able to choose the right means to solve the problems.” Mathematics learning needs to be visual – there is not a single idea or concept that cannot be illustrated or thought about visually. Just go to Click To Tweetand type in “math anchor charts,” and voila! You will see any math concept drawn out beautifully for students (You’re welcome).
Isak, Christopher. “The Power of Visualization: Solving Math Problems.” TechAcute, 13 Dec. 2014,

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