Guest Post: Why Literacy is Important for Math Success

Literacy is the foundation for all disciplines. Without the ability to read, write and think, other subject areas become a bigger challenge for students. Similarly, math, science, social studies, and all other disciplines are more accessible for kids who have experienced literacy-rich classrooms. In this post, Joy Lin shares how language skills are critical for success in mathematics.

I have taught math in elementary school, middle school, and high school settings.  Regardless of age or education level, one of the most challenging parts of math class is finding the solution to the word problems.  Most of the students I encounter are able to perform mathematic functions with enough practice as long as they are willing to try.  However, when it comes time to solve a problem based on a real-life scenario, these students often struggle with not knowing how to apply the skills that they have learned.

Sometimes it is due to previous teachers not realizing that these students do not fully comprehend the reasoning behind each operation because the class can produce correct answers from “naked problems” (math questions without words) by memorizing the steps or using tricks.  Another part of the problem is the language comprehension of these word problems.  By using “key words” to identify what operation to use, the students are performing a “search and execute” function without knowing the reason why.

The “search and execute” method only works on single-step questions.  When a sentence gives more than one piece of information, the students start getting confused.  As they age, and the word problems become even more complex, key words no longer apply since language is fluid and there are many ways to interpret a word based on context.  The students would not be able to solve the problems if they do not know both what information is given and what information they are being asked to retrieve.

Photo by Dawid Małecki on Unsplash

Teaching multiple choice question-answering techniques may be good for raising test scores, but creating open-ended math questions for assessing student knowledge is absolutely essential.  If we ask the students to report their answers by writing full sentences with the right unit in order to get the credit, it would keep them from rushing to the numeral answer by randomly jamming numbers together to find the easiest fit (like assuming the answer is 2 just because the question has 13 and 26 in it, which happens very frequently in the elementary level with students with good math sense but who cannot read English well).

I’ve observed students who can answer most one-step questions by using keywords and performing the math, but when I ask them what the numeral answer stands for, they cannot answer whether it’s 5 apples or 5 people.  These students’ math abilities allow them to skate by with a passing grade unnoticed until high school when they can no longer use tricks to get the right answer.  That is when we discover the lack of fundamental mathematics understanding and the learning gap is very difficult to bridge.

If we start at the base level and make sure all students understand why they are applying each math operation to each word problem by making sure they truly comprehend the situation they are presented with, and that they know what each operation means, we can avoid these learning gaps in upper level math.  With the pressure of testing and reviews, teachers find it difficult to stay away from using tricks to raise scores.  However, the best way to help these students in all aspects is to improve their language ability because they must first understand a problem before they can solve it.

Joy Lin attended the University of Texas in Austin at 15 and graduated with 3 degrees by the age of 21. She has been teaching in the Austin Independent School District ever since. In 2012, she was named one of the 18 most inspiring educators by, and TED funded a six-part animated series “If Superpowers Were Real.” The animated series premiered in 2013 on TED.Ed and received international media attention from BBC, FOX, KUT, Time Warner Cable News, and over 100 websites. The following year, Joy was named “Innovator of the Year” By Texas Classroom Teachers Association. Joy’s new book series “Superpower Science” is slated to release in 2018 from Hatchette Book Group. In addition to her role as a classroom teacher, she is currently an academic advisor to Sentence Analytics.

Author: Matt Renwick

Matt Renwick is an 18-year public educator who began as a 5th and 6th-grade teacher in Rudolph, WI. He now serves as an elementary principal for the Mineral Point Unified School District ( Matt also teaches online graduate courses in curriculum design and instructional leadership for the University of Wisconsin-Superior. He tweets @ReadByExample and writes for ASCD ( and Lead Literacy (

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