Teaching Reading in a Math class?

An often asked question from my students is “but this is a math class – and you want me to read and write?” When teaching my upper division Intro to Proofs class, I find a certain discomfort among students in extracting information from a math text. Most students are used to skimming over some examples and finding one that matches the homework problem. I don’t really count that as “reading” – just a sort of search and replace operation. And so when we have to prove something – uh oh – the search and replace strategy no longer works.

I thought finding a readable text would be a solution. Well, a readable text is only good if it’s read! So now I am finding myself teaching higher level reading skills and critical thinking skills. This is way tougher than teaching math. I’ve been looking at material from my college library on how to teach this type of reading. Here are some ideas from this literature I’ve adapted for college level math:

  • This is actually something I haven’t seen in many intro to proofs books: Have students read and interpret lower level math material such as theorems from precalculus; if they don’t understand how to read and interpret those, how can they understand a theorem in abstract algebra or real analysis?
  • Start the intro to proofs course with topics in discrete math and nonstandard problem solving to jump start their thinking skills. These problems are not easily amenable to the “search and replace” approach to math.
  • This is an old idea – an online reading quiz before class using Blackboard or some other LMS. You can also use Google forms very quickly for this.
  • Too late for this semester – but for the start of next semester I’m going to have the students do a “mind map” to help sketch out their proofs. There are several available on the web and Maria Andersen has information about how she uses mindmaps in her blog

If critical thinking and critical reading skills in mathematics were taught in K-12 and in the computational courses in college, I may not have this problem at such a late stage in an undergraduate math student’s career. Or, at least, it would not be so severe.

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Hi! I am an associate professor of mathematics at Kean University, NJ. In this blog, I share insights and resources for mathematics in secondary and higher education.

2 Responses

  1. Sarah Kubus
    Sarah Kubus at |

    I have a BS in math and am working on a MA in Teaching. You’ll be happy to know that I’m enrolled in a *mandatory course on “Teaching Reading in the Secondary Content Area.” In other words, I am studying how to teach high school students to read math.
    I agree with you that teaching reading skills is much tougher than teaching math directly. I am currently working on a directed reading lesson and will eventually need to put together an entire unit that focuses on reading skills.
    Do you have any ideas about excellent resources or topics to cover with a reading emphasis? What do you wish your students had learned in high school?

  2. Reva Narasimhan
    Reva Narasimhan at |

    I think problems in discrete math like counting problems using permutations and combinations require a lot of reading skills as well as the ability to infer context. Of course, many multi-step word problems require careful reading as well. In math, the reading involves the higher level skills of inference and prediction.

    You could also ask students to closely read theorems and definitions in precalculus and ask them to interpret. I do wish that students had learned to read and interpret more in high school.

    Looking though traditional textbooks with an eye toward word problems, theorems, definitions is a good start. Much of the stuff in there goes unnoticed by most students. See if your library has relatively current hs math texts. Or you can always get them cheap on Amazon.

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