Most Algebra I students use their math textbook for a single purpose, a source for homework problems. Some math instructors ask their students to read their book as part of their assignment, most do not! Instructors know students find the task of reading their math textbook a difficult one, for some an impossible one. There are specific math reading skills that are different from ordinary reading skills and we are not teaching our students to identify and use math-reading skills. The purpose of this article is two-fold: (1) identify five differences between math reading skills and ordinary reading skills, and (2) discuss what should be done to help students read their math textbook.
1. Reading speed: Suppose you are reading a novel and find a word that you don’t understand. Do you get your dictionary, search for the meaning of the word and write some notes regarding the meaning? Readers don’t expect the unknown meaning of one word to spoil the plot the novel. When students are reading a math book and find a key word that is unknown, a lack of understanding of the key word may spoil their success on the problems at the end of the section. In fact it may spoil the plot of the section and possibly the plot of the entire chapter! Ordinarily a proficient reader is also a fluent reader. In mathematics, a sufficient reader is also a deliberate reader. You may have to read a passage several times. You must search for the meaning of each key word utilizing a math textbook.
2. Reading directionality: From early learning, the concept of print directionally for reading is taught from left to right. When reading math you don’t always read from left to right, in fact you may have to resist the urge to read from left to right. Consider the math expression: 3 + 2 x 4
Reading from left to right: 3 + 2 x 4 = 5 x 4 =20
Reading mathematically: 3 + 2 x 4 = 3 + 8 = 11
Notice you get a completely different result when you read from left to right compared with reading mathematically. In this case you, you must resist the urge to read from left to right.
3. Read with pencil and paper: Reading with pencil is a math reading skill that is critical to problem solving. This skill helps students make a connection between the given information and what the problem is asking them to find. Many word problems have hidden information, which is information one needs to solve the problem but is not given in the problem. A student needs to read with pencil and paper when searching their textbook for hidden information. Reading with pencil and paper is one of the most important math reading skills.
4. Symbol interpretation: Since mathematics is a symbolic language one must be careful how they interpret math symbols, the meaning of a symbol depends on the placement of the symbol. Students incorrectly interpret exponent notation and make common math errors over and over again. Many students make errors when they enter symbols into a calculator, because they don’t differentiate between a division symbol and the symbol for a fraction bar. When faced with an incorrect answer they lack the math reading skills to find and correct the error.
5. Independent learning: A student must possess good math reading skills in order to become an independent learner of mathematics. As technology advances, it plays a larger roll in education; more students are taking online math courses especially at the college level. I believe you need to be an independent learner to succeed when taking an online course. To become independent learners, our math students need to read math with understanding. In addition, they should be able to find and eliminate common math errors.