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Why Our Students Can’t Read A Math Textbook
Most Algebra I students use their math textbook for one purpose, a source of homework problems. Some math teachers ask their students to read their book as part of their homework, most don’t! Instructors know that students find the task of reading their math textbook difficult, if not impossible for some. There are specific math reading skills that are different from ordinary reading skills and we do not teach our students to identify and use math reading skills. The purpose of this article is twofold: (1) to identify five differences between math reading skills and ordinary reading skills, and (2) to discuss what should be done to help students read their math textbook.
1. Reading speed: Suppose you are reading a novel and find a word you don’t understand. Do you get your dictionary, look up the meaning of the word, and write down some notes regarding the meaning? Readers do not expect the unknown meaning of a word to spoil the plot of the novel. When students are reading a math book and come across an unfamiliar keyword, a lack of understanding of the keyword can ruin their success on the problems at the end of the section. In fact, it can spoil the plot of the section and possibly the plot of the whole chapter! Ordinarily, a competent reader is also a fluent reader. In mathematics, a sufficient reader is also a deliberate reader. You may have to read a passage several times. You should research the meaning of each keyword using a math textbook.
2. Directionality of reading: From an early age, the notion of directional impression for reading is taught from left to right. When you read math, you don’t always read from left to right. In fact, you may have to resist the urge to read from left to right. Consider the mathematical expression: 3 + 2 x 4
Reading from left to right: 3 + 2 x 4 = 5 x 4 = 20
Math reading: 3 + 2 x 4 = 3 + 8 = 11
Notice that you get a completely different result when reading left to right than when reading math. In this case you must resist the urge to read from left to right.
3. Read with pencil and paper: Pencil reading is an essential math reading skill for problem solving. This skill helps students make a connection between the given information and what the problem asks them to find. Many word problems have hidden information, which is information that is needed to solve the problem but is not given in the problem. A student should read with pencil and paper when searching their textbook for hidden information. Reading with pencil and paper is one of the most important math reading skills.
4. Interpretation of symbols: Since mathematics is a symbolic language, care must be taken in how they interpret mathematical symbols, the meaning of a symbol depends on the location of the symbol. Students misinterpret exponent notation and repeatedly make common math mistakes. Many students make mistakes when entering symbols into a calculator because they cannot tell the difference between a division symbol and a fraction bar symbol. When faced with an incorrect answer, they lack the math reading skills to find and correct the error.
5. Independent Learning: A student must have good math reading skills to become an independent math learner. As technology advances, it plays a bigger role in education; more students are taking math courses online, especially at the college level. I believe you have to be an independent learner to be successful when taking an online course. To become independent learners, our math students must read math with understanding. Additionally, they should be able to find and eliminate common math errors.
If we expect our math students to improve their problem-solving skills and become independent learners, our math curriculum must be redesigned. Our mathematics education programs must train future mathematics teachers to teach their students to read mathematics with understanding. Identifying math reading skills and how to apply them should be an integral part of our math curriculum.
Some time ago I developed and taught a math course on how to read math. Recently Apple developed the iBooks Author software, my interest in teaching students how to read math was reignited because of the potential to bring this course to life using instructional videos. iBooks Author provides the tools to write an interactive eBook that includes teaching lessons, and I jumped at the chance to create an eBook on reading, math, and problem solving.
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