Sunday, April 19, 2015

...And to teach reading, study math instruction

In her recent Edweek commentary To Teach Math, Study Reading Instruction, Marilyn Burns asks:

How can we connect literacy and math, so that teachers bring the strengths they have with language arts instruction to their math teaching? How can teachers make links between mathematics and language arts pedagogy that will enable them to engage children with math in the same way they bring children to the wonder of reading?
One way, she proposes,
is for teachers to think about leading classroom discussions in mathematics as they often do when teaching language arts. Probing students' thinking during math lessons is valuable, so that the goal is not only getting correct answers, but also explaining why answers make sense.
Asking students why answers make sense: this idea is so novel that it apparently hasn’t occurred to most math teachers. Along these lines, Burns advises, it’s important
even when [students’] answers are correct to ask: "Why do you think that?" "How did you figure that out?" "Who has a different idea?" "How would you explain your answer to someone who disagreed?"
Naturally, Burns is also a fan of verbal explanations and peer tutoring:
It's useful to have students comment on their classmates' answers as well, asking them to explain what a peer said in their own words, or asking students if they have a different way to explain the answer. If students are stuck, it's sometimes useful to have them turn and discuss the problem with a partner and then return to a whole-class discussion.
Her takeaway?
There's much for us to think about to help teachers teach math more effectively. But I think we can make headway if we take the two most important areas of the curriculum—reading and math—and look at them side by side to analyze what's the same, what's different, and what we can learn from one to enhance the other.
I agree. And so here are some of my suggestions about how good math instruction (the kind done in countries that outperform us in math) can teach us about reading instruction (so as to make it more closely resemble that done in countries that outperform us in reading):

1. Basics first, learned to mastery: just as good math instruction teaches basic arithmetic facts and procedures to automaticity; reading instruction should teach phonics to automaticity. Since many students, even older ones, currently lack automatic symbol-to-sound decoding skills, this means much more time on phonics than is currently occurring.

2. Focus in depth on the one best method(s) rather than covering a bunch of less effective methods superficially. Just as the best math classes focus on standard arithmetic and algebraic algorithms rather than drawings of groups of objects, digit splitting, skip counting, number bonds, repeated addition, repeated subtraction, landmark numbers, and lattices, reading classes should focus on phonics, vocabulary acquisition, and close readings rather than on sight word recognition, context clues, text-to-world references, and text-to-self references.

3. Make sure students have sufficient background knowledge: just as good math instruction waits until students have mastered relevant concepts before having them do novel applications in novel problems, good reading instruction should provide relevant background knowledge to new books (e.g., for Pride and Prejudice, information about English hereditary law; for the Great Gatbsy, information about the Jazz Age).

4. Keep it content-focused: just as good math instruction doesn’t focus away from the actual math via verbose word problems, verbose explanations, and overly concrete, detailed, real life situations, reading instruction should focus on inferences within the text, rather than on inferences that take readers out of the world of the text--and, worse (in the case of “text-to-self” references), distract or annoy them with the task of having thoughts about themselves rather than about what they’re reading.

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