Why should I integrate math and literacy?

Here are two very good reasons why you should and one thing you’ll need to do.

Recently, a lot of research has encouraged the use of literacy in math lessons, but often, teachers do not implement this connection. Why not? Some teachers think integrating instruction means more work preparing lessons or maybe some think it’s just easier to read the text printed in the teachers’ manual. To me, these reasons do our students a disservice. This kind of teaching will not prepare our students for those “high-stakes” tests looming at the end of the year or prepare them for lifelong learning. That’s not the way you would want to learn something new, either …

One reason to incorporate literacy into your math lessons is to meet the learning needs of all your students. “Mathematics often seems like a kind of worst-cast scenario for differentiation. Both the nature of its content and its largely sequential organization make considerations of student differences seem peripheral” (Strong, Thomas, Perini, & Silver, p. 78). Too often math lessons are structured like lectures, with teachers relying too heavily on auditory and sequential teaching methods. That’s fine for those students whose learning style favors auditory-sequential methods, but what about the rest of your class? If most of your lessons are auditory-sequential, there’s a significant portion of your class that’s missing most of what you teach and so they will not be as prepared for tests, assignments, or to answer questions.

Think about your lessons, what does the majority of your teaching look and sound like? If most of your lessons are auditory, it is important that you vary your style of delivery in order to meet the needs of all your students. Think about the areas or the ways in which your students excel. Incorporating those preferences and learning styles into your lessons will ensure deeper, more meaningful learning. Think about the students in your room with learning disabilities or special learning needs. Integrating instruction will ensure they have more opportunities to master the material.

“Because our schools have developed texts and materials for each of these subject areas, it seems as though the message is that the two subjects should be taught to children as distinct from one another. But for children, the lines are not so clearly drawn. The world of a child involves patterns and problem solving, communication and connections. Through the selection of high-quality literature, teachers can use children’s books to integrate and exemplify the important practices of these two subject areas so that the learning of mathematics and the development of language emerge in the elementary classroom as a natural connection” (Moyer, p. 255).

Second, incorporating math and literacy ensures that students have a context for learning, which allows students to make deeper connections and leads to more meaningful learning. Teaching in this significant context will help your students foster a problem-solving mindset.

“Placing mathematics in the familiar context of children’s literature makes sense to children because it allows them to see mathematics as an integral part of their everyday experiences. This context is both interesting and meaningful, providing children with a familiar structure in which to explore mathematical ideas” (Moyer, p. 248).

This context is essential for ESOL students or students with limited English proficiency. Integrating instruction will not only make the material more meaningful to ELLs but it will also provide another opportunity to practice and improve their English.

“Children’s literature provides a meaningful context for math. Through books, learners see math as a ‘common human activity,’ which can be used in various contexts. Mathematics provides a tool for dividing a set of cookies (Hutchins, 1986), measuring a pig (Johnston, 1986), organizing a messy bedroom (Mayer, 1987), or comparing the relative size of things (Hoban, 1985). Children’s literature helps to break down the artificial dichotomy that sometimes exists between *learning* mathematics and *living *mathematics” (Whitin & Wilde, p. 4).

“When language skills are embedded in meaningful contexts, they are easier and more enjoyable for children to learn. In the same way, numbers and their operations, when embedded in meaningful real-world contexts, give children the opportunity to make sense of mathematics and to gain mathematical power … Children’s literature and mathematics both have underlying patterns and structures that help learners make sense of their world … Through the systematic use of numbers and language, children begin to understand and employ problem solving strategies in real-world situations” (Moyer, p. 248, 249).

Shannon Foster, a teacher in San Antonio, Texas, was discouraged after grading math tests using a lot of red ink. She realized her students did not comprehend the math text in the word problems. So she taught her students to use reading comprehension strategies when solving math word problems and the results were impressive! Her students found many connections between math and reading, leading to greatly improved grades! (Read *The Day Math and Reading Got Hitched* for the full story.)

“Math is not about memorization or drill or speed. It’s about patterns: seeing interesting relationships about numbers” (Rapp, p. 9).

We want our students to see patterns and relationships in math, to draw conclusions about literature, to communicate effectively, and to make connections about what they’re learning and the real world. We can only achieve this kind of learning for all of our students when we integrate instruction.

Are you convinced? Integrating instruction is essential and will make learning more meaningful. But you still think it will mean more work to prepare your lessons, right? Well, think again. Have you looked at the math standards recently? Take a look at the Common Core State Standards for Math. 2.1: Numbers, Number Systems, and Number *Relationships*. 2.4: Mathematical *Reasoning* and *Connections*. 2.5: Mathematical *Problem Solving* and *Communication*. 2.7: Probability and *Predictions*. A lot of the mathematical standards and their anchor descriptors sound very similar to reading strategies.

Teachers, this means that we need to know our curriculum! You need to know what your students are required to accomplish by the end of the year. Next, compare your reading and math standards. Put them side-by-side. Take your math and reading teachers’ manuals and look for similar skills. Are you teaching your students how to make predictions in reading? Use the same language “making a prediction”, when teaching your probability and chance lessons in math.

Take word problems, for example. Word problems can be very difficult for students to master. Students struggle to “convert” the word problem to a mathematical algorithm in order to solve for the answer. Usually, teachers intend word problems to be examples of applying math to real-life problems but in reality, word problems are contrived and unlike everyday life. In her book, *A Man Left Albuquerque Heading East: Word Problems as Genre in Math Education*, Susan Gerofsky discusses the trouble students have with word problems. She suggests that we consider word problems as their own genre. They have a form, an intention, and a structure just like fiction and poetry. Well, what does this mean for teachers seeking to integrate instruction?

It’s true that word problems can be contrived and are difficult for students but they provide a valuable opportunity for integrating literacy and math. Word problems are worthwhile because, as Gerofsky suggests, they “provide concrete visualizations of abstract relationships in math”, such as ratios (p. 141). Gerofsky suggests that we work with word problems in different ways and I suggest that word problems are one way you can integrate math and literacy, without extra preparation.

“Word problems are usually presented in written form. What if they were presented orally or on audio- or videotape? … Word problems are usually written in prose form, following prose conventions of spelling, punctuation, etc. What if they were written in verse or poetry, with unconventional spellings, punctuation, etc.? … Word problems generally require an answer in words and equations. What if the answer were to be in a different format – a drawing, a poem, or a piece of music, etc.?” (Gerofsky, p. 150).

That doesn’t sound like extra work to me. So, if you’re planning on studying word problems with your students or if you’re approaching the end of a math unit, try this: To incorporate literacy, to make learning more meaningful, and to meet the needs of all students in your class, ask your students to write their own word problems. The students can write word problem poems, sing a word problem, or present their word problem through an avatar. This assignment will not only allow students to demonstrate their mastery of the math concepts but also provide students with an opportunity for authentic real-life application, and integrate literacy in a meaningful way.

Imagine the many possibilities for integrating math and literacy! If you’d like some practical strategies and suggestions for integrating math and literacy, click on the Strategies page and have fun!

I loved reading this! It’s so interesting that the same challenges exist here in Australian schools.

Thanks Hannah. I’m excited about integrating math and literacy. I think it makes a big difference to students and makes learning more meaningful.