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Munson: Don’t Let Reading Be a Stumbling Block in Math

How to make sure the language in math word problems is clear and easy to read

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New York City Mayor Eric Adams’s planned overhaul of how schools will teach reading and his new programs and screenings for children with dyslexia are a huge step in the right direction, one that more communities should take.

Addressing dyslexia, which affects an estimated 1 in 5 students and impacts how they decode words and process information, is obviously critical for ensuring success at reading. What sometimes gets lost, however, is the degree to which dyslexia impacts other subjects, too.

My child, Six, came home from school one day several years ago distraught over a failed math quiz. We went over the questions and talked through the answers. But when I asked Six to read the problems aloud, it became clear that math wasn’t the issue.

Six has dyslexia, and we knew from an early age that it affected their reading and writing. We worked with their teachers to put accommodations in place in those subjects, but we initially didn’t understand the impact of dyslexia on math.

Lynne Munson

Students with dyslexia have trouble reading words, letters and other symbols. So, in math, lengthy written instructions and word problems can be particularly difficult. 

Six wasn’t the only student I know who had trouble with readability in math. A few years ago, a sixth grader in the Detroit area, Mya Gooden, sent me a letter about an early version of a math curriculum colleagues and I had written. Mya said that older version used complex language and vocabulary that was difficult to understand, and she made suggestions for improvements,  like simplifying words and cutting down on the length of and number of sentences in word problems. “It’s hard to learn a new math concept when you’re struggling with the vocabulary,” she wrote. I didn’t know it at the time, but Mya penned the letter as a writing assignment. I hope Mya got an A, because she was so persuasive we made the changes in subsequent versions of the curriculum.

It’s not just students with learning differences and otherwise struggling readers that educators need to consider; delivering math instruction with readability in mind is central to early elementary education. Young children often don’t have the skills to understand vocabulary in the word problems presented to them. Consider the question below, which is the kind publishers might use with first graders. 

Rachel has 12 tickets at the carnival. She buys some more to ride on the roller coaster. Now Rachel has a total of 20 tickets. How many tickets did Rachel buy to go on the roller coaster? Use the arrow way to show your simplifying strategy. Then write an equation with a question mark to show how you could find the unknown number of students.

The math has the right amount of rigor for the early grades. But there are too many words in the problem, and some of the vocabulary may be too difficult for children learning to read — or for those with reading-related disabilities.

Language should not get in students’ way, especially when it comes to meeting learning goals and developing a strong math identity. Unfortunately, many math resources lack readability, and teachers can inadvertently create lessons and assignments with this shortcoming, too. But there are ways to ensure math instruction is accessible to all learners. 

Parents, teachers, policymakers and school leaders should work together to make sure schools are using curricula that take phonics, phonemes and phonetic patterns into consideration. Research whether math textbooks and other classroom materials use Universal Design for Learning principles, an approach to curriculum creation that helps teachers tailor classroom resources for all learners. Take a close look at student workbooks and make sure they can be easily read by all the children in your community.

For teachers creating math lessons and assignments, here are steps that have worked for the teachers and curriculum writers I work with and that I’ve found to be helpful for my child:

  • Use white space liberally in student workbooks, quizzes and other instructional materials to avoid crowding words and symbols
  • Use easily readable fonts and font sizes, and include icons or pictures to clarify words that aren’t easily understood
  • Keep sentences in word problems short and concise
  • Avoid words that have multiple meanings, sound the same or are multisyllabic
  • Use proper names that are readable, diverse and representative of your communities
  • Use visual models and math drawings where possible. For example tape diagrams — rectangular models resembling a piece of tape — can help solve various types of word problems.
  • Explicitly teach words that may be difficult but that students need to learn to build their math vocabulary

This may sound like one more thing for teachers to worry about in an already packed schedule — during an extraordinarily challenging time in education. But paying attention to the readability of math instruction will help ensure all students can succeed. 

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