Putting Students on the Write Path

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One of my goals a few years back was to become a blogger. I’m not a writer. I deal with numbers not words. So panic often set in when I started to write. But then I realized that—panic or not—I had to step out of my comfort zone if I wanted to grow professionally. And so I did! Now I've written several blogs about math.

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Although writing blogs is not an easy task for a person like me, a "math" person, and it may not be easy for your students, writing is a critical skill. Writing teaches students to organize their thoughts logically, to clarify their understanding of concepts, and to sharpen their communication skills. So, it is important to encourage writing in the math curriculum. Here are three easy ways to kick-off writing in your math classroom.

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Read in Class
I know, reading in math class sounds strange, but it doesn’t have to be strange. And it doesn’t necessarily mean reading a novel, although students may find Flatland: A Romance of Many Dimensions, by Edwin A. Abbott a motivating book. Another interesting book—this one nonfiction—is Innumeracy, by John Allen Paulos. The book is full of riveting examples of how math is essential to our daily lives and how—for an educated citizen—numeracy is as important as (and related to) literacy.

Research shows that reading impacts writing and writing impacts reading. As Clare Heidema states in her article Reading and Writing to Learn in Mathematics: Strategies to Improve Problem Solving, “Mathematics is about problem solving, and reading comprehension is an important component, especially for word problems.” While it’s important for students to be able to read through short problems (e.g., finding a number such that the sum of twice the number and 7 is 13), don’t shy away from those long word problems. Use them frequently. Read them aloud in class. Have students deconstruct them individually or in groups. And then have students reflect on the problem-solving process used through writing.

Please Explain
A great way to get math students to express themselves in writing is to say, “Explain.” It’s that simple. Such a small word, but a powerful one. Students can show true understanding by justifying their thoughts in writing. Asking students to explain in detail how they solved a problem is a valuable form of mathematical writing. Start small by asking students to explain an answer on an assessment or their response to an opening assignment. While this task alone will not necessarily turn your students into writers, it’s certainly an excellent way to start them on the right path.

Encourage Reflection
Finally, encourage reflection. Have students start a math journal to record their thinking, their challenges, and their accomplishments. Math journals will give students a chance to articulate their feelings about math and allow them to clearly express what they’ve learned (or to discover gaps in their learning). For some students, the structure of the math journal will be important. That is, you may want to devise entry questions for them. These questions should be clear and concise. While the main idea is to express themselves in writing, students should also be allowed to do so through modeling. If your journal question is a specific math question, try using one that has multiple solutions or calls for several paths to reach the solution. Remember, you want students to think! Check out these math journal prompts for a start.

There are many ways to encourage writing in a math classroom. I hope these suggestions are a good starting point. And remember, ultimately, math isn’t simply about equations any more than philosophy is about diagramming sentences. The goal in both subjects is the same: understanding.

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About Author

Staci Lyon

Staci Lyon is a mathematics curriculum specialist with Curriculum Pathways. She taught high school mathematics for 12 years in Wake County and Granville County. She also taught with North Carolina Virtual Public School. She received both a M.Ed. degree in Instructional Technology and a B. S. degree in Mathematics Education from North Carolina State University. Working alongside a team, she enjoys developing the award winning online math resources for Curriculum Pathways that allow teachers to integrate technology into their classrooms. Outside of work, she enjoys traveling and spending time with family and friends.

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