Reading: essential for independence in math
Do you have older kids who struggle to work independently in math? If so, part of the problem may be their reading skills, not their math skills. In this article, I’ll explain why reading math is so difficult and how you can teach your kids this essential skill.
Why is reading math so difficult?
When your kids read a novel, there’s a lot of context to help them understand the author’s point. Even if they don’t know the meaning of every word, they can usually use context clues to figure out most unfamiliar words and get the general sense of the passage.
Take this passage from On the Banks of Plum Creek as an example:
“Laura played alone in the hot sunshine. The blue flags were withering among the dull rushes. She went past the willow valley and played in the prairie grasses among the black-eyed Susans and goldenrod.”
Many children reading this won’t know all the kinds of plants mentioned in the passage: flags, rushes, black-eyed Susans, and goldenrod. But they can infer that all are types of prairie flowers. And even if this detail goes over a child’s head, it’s not essential to understanding the overall meaning of the passage, which is that Laura is playing by herself on the prairie.
In contrast, math writing is extremely concise. Every sentence packs a ton of information into just a few words, and just about every word has a very specific meaning. Unless you understand the precise meaning of each word, it is very difficult to understand the overall gist.
Here’s an example from Math Mammoth’s Add and Subtract 4:
“Add up to find the change. To find the change, find the difference between the price and the money given. Start from the price and add till you reach the amount the customer gave.”
This is a great description of how to make change mentally, but you can see how every word is crucial to understanding the meaning of the sentence. To comprehend this explanation, a child must know the meanings of adding up, change, and difference. He or she must also understand what the author means by price, customer, and money given. If any of these pieces is missing, the meaning of the whole passage is lost (and it becomes very difficult for the child to do the problems on the page).
How to teach your kids how to read math
Even though mathematical reading is difficult, it’s a skill that can be taught. Like most difficult skills, kids need to be explicitly taught how to do it, and then they need lots of practice to master the skill. Here are five principles to teach your children to help them become mathematical readers and more independent in their math work.
Identify the main idea.
Knowing the main point of the printed math lesson helps kids make sense of the details when they read it more closely. Teach your kids to read the lesson headings, glance at the illustrations, and skim the passage before reading in detail. They may also want to take a look at the assigned problems so that they know what kind of problems the lesson will help them solve.
Kids tend to read at just one speed. Teach your kids to adjust their speed depending on the text that they are reading. They may be able to speed through a novel, but most non-fiction requires reading a bit more slowly in order to comprehend it–and math usually requires reading at a snail’s pace!
Reading a math book is like reading the instructions for putting together a piece of furniture from Ikea: you should only read the next line when you’ve understood and thought about the one before it.
“Read” the pictures and equations.
Most math lessons come with some diagrams, pictures, or equations to help explain the text. These diagrams are usually crucial to understanding the content. As they read, kids should make sure to match up the text with the diagrams and check that they understand the connection between the two.
Make sure you know what every word and symbol means.
In math, not knowing just one word in a sentence can make it difficult to understand the whole thing. Teach your children to stop if they don’t know one of the words or symbols, and figure it out before moving on. Teach them where to look if they don’t know a math word: some books have a glossary in the back, or a list of key words for each chapter. In other books, you just have to flip backwards until you find where it was originally defined in the text.
Reread—a couple times if necessary!
After your child has identified the main idea and read the passage slowly and carefully, he or she may still need to read it over another time or two to fully understand it. Kids who are used to understanding fiction at the first reading may feel frustrated when they have to read a math lesson over and over, but this repeated reading is often necessary. Help your kids have appropriate expectations so that they know it’s a normal part of reading math, not any fault of theirs. Encourage them to go back to the lesson as they work through the problems, too.
It takes some time to teach kids to read math well, but it’s time well-invested!