Reading in the Math Classroom

Mary Kuchta

South Dakota State University


This paper discusses the importance of reading in the math classroom. I will also discuss different struggles that I have encountered within my own math classroom. I will also be explaining different strategies that I use in the classroom to help students learn how to read math and explain other strategies that I have researched that I plan on incorporating in the classroom.

Reading in the Math Classroom

When a student is not successful in math, teachers usually assume the difficulty is with the student’s mathematical ability or possibly the student’s dislike of mathematics, but the truth may more likely lie with the student’s poor ability to read the mathematics textbook. Math textbooks contain more concepts per word, per sentence, and per paragraph than any other text type or content area textbook (Rust, 2008). One of the most common complaints about mathematics is that it is too difficult to read. Indeed, numerous concepts are often squeezed into very compact notation and symbols. That is why reading instruction should be included in mathematics classes. Students cannot be expected to think mathematically unless they can read the material. Steps can certainly be taken to improve student comprehension by teaching students to read the language of mathematics. Without such instruction, many students will be lost in a sea of notation and symbols (Blanton, 1991).

Literacy is the ability to comprehend all sorts of text, and helping students accomplish the goal of comprehension requires more than asking them to open a book and read the chapter (Shults, 2008). Math teachers must help students to read the material in front of them and help to understand what is being asked. Unfamiliar vocabulary and complicated syntax can make understanding examples in the book and reasoning through story problems can be very difficult. There are many things that teachers can do to help students improve comprehension and understanding of the concepts introduced.

Each new concept needs to be broken down so that it is accessible to the student. For example, when introducing the concept of adding and subtracting fractions, the teacher first shows how to identify fractions and their components parts, such as the numerator and the denominator (Blanton, 1991). Students need to understand what the vocabulary is for each concept so they can communicate what needs to be done. Math is like learning a new language.

There are numerous and more creative strategies being used in the math classrooms today to help improve reading skills and literacy. A strategy that teachers are using is the pre-reading strategy called T.H.I.E.V.E.S. Each letter in the acronym stands for a distinct part of an informational text: “T” for title, “H” for headings, “I” for introduction, “E” for every first sentence, “V” for visuals and vocabulary, “E” for end of chapter questions, and “S” for summary. This is a strategy that engages students. In math, we would change the first “E” to “Examples” to make it an effective pre-reading strategy for math books (Shults, 2008). I have never used this strategy yet, but I will incorporate it into my classroom because many times students don’t even try to read the text because they were never shown how to read it or it is too hard to read. They just want someone to tell them exactly what to do. By telling students exactly how to solve a problem, I would not be allowing them to be making their own connections and learn how to read a math textbook.

Another strategy that may help students build their reading skills in math is forming word walls. This is where the students post definitions they encounter on the wall in their own words (Shults, 2008). As students learn different vocabulary in math, they need a way to remember what the words mean. If they can connect the word to what they already know and write their own definition, then they will remember and understand the meaning. Creating a word wall may help with that process. Let’s use the example of “median”. The word median in math is the middle number of a collection of data points. Some students might think of this word meaning the middle of the road. So, if the students can draw a picture and write the meaning so that they understand it, they may remember it because they are connecting the new meaning of the word to a pre-existing meaning.

I do not use word walls in my classroom, but I do have students make their own dictionary of math terms. In the dictionary, they draw pictures, show examples, and write the definition in their own words. I found that by having the students do this, they learn how to use and understand the new language presented to them.

“Knowing mathematics is doing mathematics. We need to create situations where students can be active, creative, and responsive to the physical world. To learn mathematics, students must construct it for themselves. They can only do that by exploring, justifying, representing, discussing, using, describing, investigating, predicting, in short by being active in the world. Writing is an ideal activity for such processes” (Countryman, 1992). This statement holds true when students are trying to solve story problems. Story problems are some of the hardest things for students to learn how to do. Many times this is caused by the fact that students don’t understand or know what the question is asking. I found that one of the most effective ways for students to understand different problems is to work in pairs, break up the problem, brainstorm, and communicate ideas to each other on how to solve the problem. When they break apart a problem, they answer a series of questions. The questions are: “1. what do I know? 2. what do I want to know? 3. how can I get what I want? and 4. does my answer make sense and why?” When they answer these questions, they must answer them in complete sentences. I found that writing the answers in complete sentences; they learn to communicate their thoughts to each other and me. Also, by working together, they become active in their own learning and work together to find the solution.

Many times we separate math and reading because on the surface they seem like to completely different subjects. But, in fact reading skills are some of the most important aspects of mathematics. If a student struggles with their reading skills, they will struggle in math. Learning mathematics is like learning a second language. If we are to help all our students develop solid math skills, we need to do more reading instruction in the math classroom and incorporate different strategies into the classroom that will help build those skills.


Blanton, M. (1991, Jan/Feb). Teaching Reading in the Math Classroom. Clearing House, 64, (3), 162-165.

Countryman, J. (1992). Writing to Learn Mathematics. Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann.

Hoff, D. (2001, December 5). Reading Mastery Is New Requisite For Solving Math. Education Week, 21, (14), 1-2.

Rust, A. (2008, June, 22). What Does Reading Have to do With Math? (Everything!). [Powerpoint]. AMATYC Conference.

Shults, D. (2008, February). Content Area Literacy: Beyond the Language Arts Classroom. Teachers at Work [On-Line]. Available: