I am currently in a course titled "teaching reading in a content area." While there are plenty of examples of different strategies that can be used in different subject areas, there are little suggestions for mathematics, due in part I am guessing to our book author's unfamiliarity with the subject. A little is discussed on how to approach textbook reading with your students (involving pointing out the structure and function of different aspects of the book, which is of course important), but I am feeling very wanting.
These are some of the ways I know that reading comprehension can affect math class performance. In an answer I would be hoping for ways to address any or all of these. Additionally, mentioning other ways that reading comprehension can affect math ability would be something I'm interested in as well.
- Straightforward: Not knowing how to read the textbook (or not knowing when to read the textbook) affects a student's independent learning ability. This applies to all classes, but I'd argue particularly math, since it seems that students expect teachers to talk them through everything and if they don't catch something, it's out of sight out of mind. (This comes from a lot of tutoring: many students don't bring their textbooks to the tutoring center I am at and those who do seemed stunned that the formulas are in the book)
- Content (mathematical) vocabulary. This is something I believe most of us already focus on since definitions are at the heart of mathematics. However, we all know a student can memorize a definition without having understanding of the concept behind it. Perhaps this can be summed up as "making meaning of mathematical ideas."
- Comprehension of "word problems" and turning "words" into mathematical diagrams/formulas-- if a student cannot decode their word problems, they cannot do them. This was evident in a remedial geometry course I taught for the first time last year, where it took me until mid-course to realize that some of my students' reading skills affected their ability to learn math (it was the first course I ever taught). The question I posed was, nearly verbatim: "A church has a 6" stair leading to its entrance. They want to build a wheelchair ramp to the stair. The maximum legal angle for wheelchair ramps is 6 degrees from the ground. How far out horizontally from the stair will the ramp reach? Make sure to draw the stair and the ramp." One particularly struggling student drew a stair, but did not even draw a ramp. Does this signify defeat or lack of comprehension?
- Comprehension of causative statements. The "If...then" relationship tends to be a challenge to effectively convey as evidenced by even upper-division math students struggling in proofs courses with it. While this may in part be due to difficulty in logical reasoning skills, this may also be tied to lack of clear exposure to "If...then" and "cause...effect" instruction in language learning.
To recap: What are ways that reading comprehension (at the lower, decoding level AND the higher, reading for meaning level) can be addressed meaningfully in a math classroom? What are other ways that poor reading comprehension can affect mathematical performance?