Teaching Tuesday: Literacy in Mathematics Content Instruction

By Dr. Tracy Vasquez, Dusty Sanchez, and Danielle Remy, faculty

female teacher using literacy in mathematics content instruction

Literacy is an important skill across all content areas. As teachers, we need to remember that math instruction is more than algorithms and rote memorization. Math, as a content area, includes the development of literacy skills such as reading, writing, listening and speaking as they relate to developing functional and applicable skills in math. Instructional plans need to include modeling of content literacy and ample opportunities for students to practice their emerging mathematical literacy.

Integrating Literacy into Math Using Literature

We can use literature to assist students with math concepts, by presenting them in a familiar and comfortable manner such as math stories. Many children’s literature authors have identified ways to introduce math concepts and reduce feelings of intimidation of math through relatable characters, fun stories, diverse cultures and interesting settings. Familiar characters from their favorite stories can then be used to assist in student recall as we look to build upon math concepts in a scaffolded structure.

Scaffolded instruction in math using literature provides unique opportunities for students to have frequent exposure to terminology, demonstration of math concept relationships through characters and application of situational context using complex math skills. An additional benefit to incorporating literature in math instruction is to illustrate concepts and bring to life the linguistic support. Complex math skills illustrated within literature help students to develop concrete understanding of abstract math concepts.

Literacy with Mathematical Vocabulary

Teachers can create opportunities for students to develop strong academic language in math instruction while also supporting students’ confidence and self-efficacy in their math skills. As teachers, our modeling of content vocabulary and terminology can be impactful for students. When students hear mathematic vocabulary pronounced correctly and frequently by their teacher, they begin to internalize the terms for future use. For example, when reading numbers, the teacher can model place value by reading the number “one hundred and nine” rather than “one ‘O’ nine.”

As a teacher, we know that it is important to support the different learning needs and styles of our students in all content areas, including math. We can introduce mathematical vocabulary through the use of written and spoken language, visuals and manipulatives to support a broad range of students. One example can include math journals. Students can explain in words the justification for their problem-solving process and how they came to an answer is a wonderful way for students to practice their mathematical literacy. It also helps to build up their understanding of math concepts beyond rote memorization.

Early childhood and elementary teachers may also incorporate math songs and dance into instruction to help students engage in math learning and bring joy to their learning processes. Another strategy to increase students’ math vocabulary is to create a math word wall. A math word wall is when you post math vocabulary terms to help your students memorize important equations. To bolster the effectiveness of word walls, include examples, visuals prompts and definitions when appropriate for students to reference as they develop corresponding skills and math proficiency.

Reduce Math Anxiety with Literacy Concepts

Sometimes students create emotional barriers to math and may make statements that they are “not good at math.” We can infuse strategies into our teaching practice in an attempt to break down such barriers by building students’ confidence in math and reducing their anxiety. Getting students to talk about math is one way to build their self-efficacy. Using Number Talks we provide students a math problem and have students share their various strategies for solving the problem with one another. Identifying the correct answer is not the focus of the activity but rather the building of math discourse.

In addition, Number Talks allow for students who are struggling with concepts to hear and learn from their peers. By allowing students to share their strategies for solving a problem, they get the opportunity to hear multiple approaches and varied perspectives on challenges they may be having. To make math relevant, teachers need to think beyond the paper or pencil worksheets and create engaging opportunities for students to explore math. For instance:

  • Creating math word problems using students’ names
  • Allowing students to do math projects that interest them
  • Having students create the math word problems
  • Using math menus for students to choose how to demonstrate their knowledge

These are all ways teachers can help reduce math anxiety and make learning math more relevant and engaging.

Incorporating literacy in math instruction provides students opportunities to understand and connect with the content more deeply. By using literature in math, building math vocabulary and lessening math stressors, students will be exposed to practicing literature concepts as well as expanding mathematical foundations. As we continue to discuss incorporating literacy across the content areas, we will explore other subjects such as science and social studies.

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The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author’s and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of Grand Canyon University. Any sources cited were accurate as of the publish date.