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.

Struggling Mathers

This past year was my 26th in this business. I spent 11 of those as a middle school language arts and social studies teacher. I spent 5 years as an instructional coach. I taught alternative ed and GED for 2.5 years. All of my working life I’d been concerned with the input side of literacy – reading.  This year, I am teaching high school math.

I am a complete newbie at teaching high school Algebra. And I feel like it. I spend long hours poring over content trying to understand the most sensible route to making this abstract subject comprehensible and engaging for my freshmen. They were placed with me at the beginning of the second semester this past year to repeat semester 1 because they had failed it. I am certainly no expert and lean on my new peers in the math department for help.


This is one reason why I am thankful to be reading Jennifer Allen’s book, Becoming A Literacy Leader. Specifically, she opens with her call to creating a climate where “creating ongoing opportunities for shared experiences and conversations among staff” is the way forward in navigating the myriad demands we face as teachers.

One of the most striking parts of my experience has been a fresh set of unbiased eyes on a traditional subject. All my years of literacy instruction have given me a different perspective on this whole math thing. I watch students “get it” when I sit with them one-on-one and we read a word problem out loud together. They start to make sense when I ask them a few good questions to help them reflect and verbalize what they know from the problem. As much as I leaned on my team, I believe I brought perspective to our conversations. 

It’s like “good” readers vs. struggling readers. You know. All those things we know those good readers are doing in their heads, like, predicting, connecting the text to things they know, making a movie of the action in their mind, reading for a specific purpose, scanning, skimming, re-reading… the list could go on. I am finding that struggling mathers are not doing the things that “good” mathers are doing.

That the difference between them often lies not in some innate ability, but a collection of habits that they don’t have yet and are not employing to help themselves. I find myself often modeling my thinking out loud for them. They apply few of the Standards For Mathematical Practice (which I am only just getting to now, as you can imagine).

This is only one example of how I am “seeing” and wrestling with literacy in math.

Just as Ms. Allen notes in chapter 2, as “learning to read should be a joyful experience,” so should learning to math. My attempt this summer while reading Jennifer’s book is to find parallels to help foster and lead in literacy in the math world. I know I have tons of math resources available to me – I’ve spent a lot of time reading them these past few months – but I want to specifically think about my context, my assignment, my kids and how I can help them navigate math help and instructional resources. I think Ms. Allen’s book is the perfect platform for developing the questions I want to ask in order to explore this further.


3rd Grade Read Aloud: The 500 Hats of Bartholomew Cubbins

In recognition of Read Across America, I am taking March to share some of my best experiences reading aloud to students in my school. As a principal, I believe it is imperative that I get into classrooms on a daily basis and model this lifelong skill.

The time I spent teaching third grade led me to believe that it is a pinnacle year for both student and teacher. As a student, the expectations in academics, especially in math, are raised. For teachers, third grade opens up a whole new world of literature to share with kids. This combination is a great opportunity to read aloud more complex literature that ties in the other content areas.

Before Reading Aloud

Ask students what they know about Dr. Seuss’ writing style. They may suggest he likes to rhyme, his illustrations are very colorful, he uses zany and made up words, and his writing is geared toward younger kids. It might be wise to write down their responses to refer back to later. Explain that The 500 Hats of Bartholomew Cubbins is a departure from Dr. Seuss’ other books. Ask students to look for these differences as you read.

During the Read Aloud

As Bartholomew starts racking up the number of hats he has taken off at the King’s request, use the running totals to pose some mental math problems. For example, “When Bartholomew arrived, Sir Alaric counted 45 hats in the Throne Room. The King and Bartholomew mentioned that there are an additional 90 hats in town. How many total hats are there?”. Give students time to process this problem before asking for responses.


Let students talk to each other about their answers before sharing with the whole group. Ask for several responses before providing the correct answer. For those that got it right, ask them the process they used. Share your own, such as counting up to easy numbers. Continue to pose problems when the story presents them.

After Reading Aloud

Go back to the list students made about what many of Dr. Seuss’ books have in common. Contrast that list to this book and have students identify the differences. Ask students if they could relate to this story a little more than other books by the author. They might surprise you with a response of how the King reminds them of an adult they know who doesn’t listen to them (not you, of course).

Special note: When I shared this with 3rd graders last week, a student asked me how I read those weird words. I didn’t understand his question at first. Then I realized he was inquiring about the process I used to decode, understand and then speak the words aloud. I explained that when readers get better at reading through lots of practice, they can read the words ahead of time before they actually get to the word to be read aloud. This question reminded me to be more explicit about the process I use as a reader. Demystifying this skill and attributing it to doing lots of reading is what emerging readers need to hear.