In most reading classes, students are taught fix up strategies. Fix up strategies are what good readers use when they come to an unfamiliar word or when they stop understanding what they’re reading.
The assumption that most math teachers have is that the students will use these fix up strategies in their math classroom which may be true for some but not all. Based on my experience with struggling learners, unless they were explicitly taught how to use reading comprehension strategies in other subjects it just doesn’t happen.
In math, there are all kinds of unfamiliar math words and most struggling readers won’t learn or even understand them all. However, teaching students how to use words that they do understand to define math vocabulary that they don’t understand will give them a tool that will help them to persevere despite their learning deficits.
There are a ton of articles and books about content literacy, but there are three reasons why all math teachers need to include context clues in their problem-solving strategy.
Increases student’s problem-solving confidence
In my experience, learning math isn’t necessarily the issue with a large portion of students. The underlying culprit that keeps students from doing well in math is the lack of confidence.
Before I was a Math Interventionist, I taught fifth grade and I had classes with enormous learning gaps. I realized then that the barrier to learning and growing were the students’ lack of confidence. When students are taught math strategies that connect the subject, it builds their confidence!
For example, I have a fourth period class that I call my dead class because it’s like a graveyard for this particular virtual class. There was one ray of sunshine in this class who kept me teaching. So, when I started my review of adding and subtracting negative numbers, I showed them an example of protons and neutrons which was a topic they learned about in science.
While solving the problem, to help him make a connection we talked about how the charges of batteries have to be negative and positive. After he solved the problem, he said, “I wished someone would have taught this to me a long time ago because I would’ve gotten it then.”
Adding and subtracting negative numbers didn’t mean anything to this student prior to my lesson. After my lesson, he gained the confidence he needed to solve equations.
Decreases students’ need to skip unfamiliar math vocabulary words
There have been some years where I’ve asked myself why I became a teacher. One particular year, when I had the courage to ask students what they did when they were reading and came to a word they didn’t know. One student proudly said, “I just skip over it!” I stood in front of the class with a blank stare.
After the initial shock wore off, I knew I had a huge problem. At that moment, I decided to teach them about using context clues. During this process, I learned that most students who struggle with reading assume that adults know all of the words when we read.
During my small group instruction time, I taught my students how to find the meaning to unfamiliar words by looking for clues in the sentence with the unfamiliar word and in the sentences before and after the unfamiliar word. This helped tremendously; my intervention students who were also struggling readers stopped skipping over words they didn’t know or understand.
Improves problem solving proficiency
Teaching your students to use context clues will also improve problem solving proficiency. One of the Mathematical Practices is to make sense of problems and persevere in solving them. It also states,
“Mathematically proficient students check their answers to problems using a different method, and they continually ask themselves, “Does this make sense?” They can understand the approaches of others to solving complex problems and identify correspondences between different approaches.”
Students can’t make sense of problems if they don’t understand the problem. Early in my career, I used to think that everything was a math issue. After teaching math for about ten years, I realized that sometimes when students struggle it is a math issue with procedural fluency and other times it’s a literacy problem.
My last year teaching fifth grade math, I had a group of students who had very low reading levels along with context clues. The Thinking Routine Sentence-Phrase-Word helped my students to be more proficient problem solvers.
Teaching problem solving is difficult any way you slice it.