Last week I wrote about how much I love writing. So…this week I’m writing about my least favorite school subject. Well, it was my least favorite when I was in elementary school. Math. Aside from my kid brother, math was the bane of my existence when I was growing up. It just never made any sense to me. No matter how hard I tried, I always ended up frustrated to the point of despair. Reading math problems was especially trying. I couldn’t understand – “How can I be so good at reading, and not able to understand these word problems?” Now that I’m the one assigning math problems, the last thing I want my students to feel is helpless and hopeless when tackling math.
Learning the Language of Math
My teaching took a big step forward with the use of Power Pix during math instruction. I’ve written about this Whole Brain Teaching technique in earlier posts, so I won’t go into detail about how and when I use them. These little posters are useful in many ways, but it is with the acquisition of math vocabulary that they have been the most beneficial. How, for instance, can a student tell you the factors in an equation if they don’t know what the words “factor” or “equation” even mean? I might as well have been speaking in a foreign language because that’s what it is to so many students. So, I treat it as such and teach them how to be fluent in math.
Real Reading…in Math
Learning the math lingo, however, is not enough. Time for some comprehension. Way back in September, I taught my students that real reading combines both reading the text and thinking about its meaning. Math (or any content area for that matter) is the perfect time to also teach students that real reading happens…well. All. The. Time. Of course, I didn’t just say, “Don’t forget to do real reading with those math word problems!” No, translating a strategy into ingrained habit takes lots and lots of modeling, instruction and practice.
So, in order to help them acquire this habit of doing real reading with math word problems, we’ve taken to annotating the problems in our textbooks. Since the books are in their last year of use with a new series set to be delivered some time this summer, it seemed the perfect use for these soon-to-be relics! Here’s how we do it…
1. Read the problem.
2. Read it again, but this time annotate the key information:
- Circle numerical information
- Underline words and phrases that give clues about what operation(s) to perform
- Draw a box around the label
- Translate numbers written in word form into digits
3. Solve the problem.
4. Ask, “Does this make sense?”
You can see in the photos that follow some examples of annotated word problems from last week’s lessons.
Close reading is gaining in popularity with the advent of the Common Core State Standards. This approach takes that method and applies it to math word problems. It reminds me of when I’m first writing a lesson. I always try to consider the “big picture” by defining the enduring understanding. What do my students most need to understand from this lesson that will help them be successful not just in school, but in life? I’m just one teacher, but it seems that reading critically and comprehending text is crucial to what students need to be successful in math and beyond.