Content Area Reading in Math

Content Area Reading in Mathematics

Final Paper for Literacy methods class, Fall 2012

When I taught some math classes last summer, one of my biggest challenges was teaching students to read the textbook appropriately. I’d start the class with taking some text and using a website that scrambled it so that the first and last letter remained but the middle letters were scrambled and show them how ordinary text in English is still readable even if the letters are in the wrong order. I’d point out that math isn’t the same:

2x/5 is not the same as 5/2x and 5/(2x) is not the same as (5/2)x. So every symbol matters in its correct order in mathematics.

Despite pointing out those kind of strategies to the students, though, I’d find that they came into class not really getting much out of reading the textbook. I’d assign, say, a section in the textbook and ask them to work the example problems or the problems at the end of each example. But still, I’d come into class and they wouldn’t understand and wouldn’t even be able to begin to frame a question. So I realized that more explicit instruction of content-area reading strategies was going to be necessary.

Linda Takami pointed out the unique challenges of reading a mathematics textbook:

“In mathematics, it is necessary to read from left to right, right to left, top to bottom, bottom

to top, and diagonally. In addition, tables, graphs, charts, symbols, and illustrations are a part of

mathematics reading and are critical to comprehension of mathematics concepts ” (2009, p. x)

Even if students have learned reading strategies in their English and social studies classes, they are often ill-prepared to take them into mathematics classes. Math teachers need to teach these skills, but their credential programs often don’t prepare them for this challenge. And, what’s more, Takami found that teachers editions of commonly used mathematics textbooks routinely fail to provide the necessary cues, instruction, and methods for teachers in terms of mathematics-specific reading strategies.


Draper (2002) focused primarily on the question of activation of prior knowledge and purpose for reading in mathematics. Students need to active the knowledge they already know, and to have some kind of purpose to guide them as they work through the textbook. She suggests adapting the KWL framework in order to help students access this prior knowledge. She cautioned, however, that students might cynically say that they don’t have anything they want to know: “This is a tricky part of the activity for all teachers, who may encounter students who claim that they wish to know nothing. Nevertheless, with the proper stimulation and with teacher persistence, students can create a good list of questions ” (p. 527). She suggests that students be given a problem similar to that in the reading to struggle with first, as a way of helping them to identify what they already know (K) and what they want to know (W). Then after they read the passage, they can identify what they learned (L).

Draper also suggests having students develop predictions about what a passage in a math textbook will be about. She suggests stopping every sentence in ordinary prose and every line in a problem explanation and asking the students questions such as “What is this text about? Who can sum-

marize what we just read? Does this information fit with what we thought the author would include in

this text? How does this fit with our predictions? ” Then after reading, they can work through exercises similar to the one that they just read about. They can then, Draper suggests, move from having help from the teacher in doing this to doing this on their own.

Takami had a lot of similar ideas about teaching mathematics content-area reading to students. She classifies the strategies she suggested teaching to students into three categories- before reading, during reading, and after reading. For before reading, she suggested discussing the vocabulary of a problem and making sure students understand both mathematical language and common language in the problem. She also observed that in mathematics, “the purpose of the problem is often not evident until the end of the problem ” and so teachers might need to explicitly state the purpose prior to students reading a problem. For example, she stated, problems in math textbooks often give a set of data first, and then provide some problems to solve using that data. So a teacher might say something like: “you’re going to be asked to write an equation from the data on these graphs” in order to help create a purpose for reading. Students also need explicit instruction on how to read tables, charts, diagrams, graphs, numbers, and equations (p. 81).

During reading, Takami suggested, students need help in connecting the text of a problem to the chart, diagram, table, or graph. They also need help in figuring out which information is the most important on these visual representations which often contain a lot of extraneous information. They also might need help decoding the mathematical vocabulary used in the textbook. Finally, after reading, she suggested, students need to learn how to summarize what they read.

So, what could I have done differently in the algebra 2 class that I taught? Rather than just talk to students about reading the textbook – I could have specifically modeled what it means to do content-area reading and what metacognitive strategies would look like that students should use as they read the textbook. I mean, I helped them figure out what was in the textbook… but I wasn’t really teaching those skills to them. So, they know now that they can learn math with a teacher – but they left my class not having the ability to learn from a textbook. I needed to specifically teach them how to activate their prior knowledge, to set a purpose for reading, and the specific reading strategies needed to understand what was in the textbook. The students I was working with had failed Algebra 2, in large part due to lacking content-area reading strategies for mathematics. And they left knowing some math, perhaps, but without the skill to learn math on their own.


Draper article:,Constructivism,andLiteracy.pdf

Takami dissertation:

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