Back to BlogDo You Read Math? How to Support Literacy in Your Math Class

I have a quick true or false quiz for you about math and literacy:

- T/F Language and literacy skills need to be systematically taught.
- T/F Math educators are typically not trained to teach literacy.
- T/F Math is a language.
- T/F The ability to translate word problems into equations helps them succeed in math.

If you answered “true” to all of the above, you got a perfect score. How did you do?

We know how important literacy is for student math achievement and that many math educators may not feel comfortable providing the literacy support students need. But the need is great: two out of three students read below grade level nationally, and the number of English language learners in U.S. schools continues to rise.

We can’t wait for someone else to teach our students the literacy skills they need for their math studies. How can we as math educators support all students to excel?

I taught secondary math for almost 15 years and worked with English language learners and students with varying literacy needs. I had to figure out a lot of tips and tricks on my own, and I’m passionate about bringing that experience to the work I do in developing our MATHbook.

One former student, in particular, stands out from my time in the classroom. An English language learner was reading a problem and mistook a period at the end of the sentence for a decimal point, and got stuck. Seeing the confusion between punctuation and mathematical notation drove home the impact that literacy support can have in supporting students as they learn mathematics.

Now, as I serve as Director of Instructional Design, Math 6-12, I get to share my years of experience and training with math teachers as I develop core curricula and work with teachers across the country in professional learning events. Let me go back to the quiz you took at the top of this page and share some research-based insight that I believe all educators should know.

**Language and literacy skills need to be systematically taught.**Kids don’t just develop reading skills by osmosis—they’re intentionally developed. Reading specialists know from years of research on the science of reading that reading skills like phonics and comprehension must be explicitly, systematically taught. Math educators can learn a lot from our literacy colleagues, including applying this idea to mathematical literacy. We can’t just assume that students will automatically be able to read and comprehend a problem riddled with mathematical symbols and vocabulary. They won’t get that instruction anywhere else.

**Math educators are typically not trained to teach literacy.**“I’m a math teacher. I don’t teach reading.” Have you heard a math teacher express something similar? Early in my teaching career, I could relate. Even the few literacy resources that I*was*provided in district trainings didn’t provide*authentic*ways to apply reading and writing skills in math learning. The suggestions were typically to add extra readings to the content we needed to cover, like an article to read or a graph from a newspaper to analyze. But what about ways to support reading skills that students needed to do the work already in front of them? That’s why it’s been so important to me to include language-support features in our MATHbook. For example, Teacher Implementation Guides include Language Links, which are point-of-use suggestions for how to clarify the meanings of academic and contextual terms.

**Math is a language.**In educator Dr. Randy Palisoc’s TEDx talk, he points out how confusing the following third grade math standard would be to a non-math expert: “Understand a fraction 1/b as the quantity formed by 1 part when a whole is partitioned into b equal parts; understand a fraction a/b as the quantity formed by a parts of size 1/b.” The non-expert might ask, bewildered, “what language is that?” It’s the language of math, and we can translate it so it makes sense to our students, or we can teach them the language itself.

**The ability to translate word problems into equations helps them succeed in math.**A 2021 groundbreaking new study by Student Achievement Partners conducted one of the largest longitudinal assessments of what prepares students for success in Algebra. Among the findings, researchers concluded that “skill at translating word problems into algebra equations and an understanding of the different ways in which functions can be represented (e.g., equation, graphically) were uniquely related to later Algebra I EOC [end-of-course].”

So, what are concrete strategies math educators can implement in the classroom to support their students’ literacy development? Download the guide to get three research-based best practices for supporting literacy in math classrooms.

- Sarah Galasso
- Director of Instructional Design, Math (6-12)
- Carnegie Learning, Inc.
- sarahgmath

Sarah Galasso began her career teaching secondary mathematics in Anaheim, CA. Sarah’s passion for math education and supporting diverse learners led her to the University of CA, Irvine, where she worked to provide professional development for southern California school districts as they developed K–12 standards-aligned math curricula. She also partnered with Student Achievement Partners writing a series of blog posts on the Standards for Mathematical Practice for AchievetheCore.org. As the Director of Instructional Design, Math (6-12), Sarah applies her knowledge to help produce high quality instructional resources and tools to support student growth.

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