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Not Alone

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Sometimes, it seems, mathematics teachers live on an island, separated from teachers of other subject areas. When other teachers use or reference mathematics, they generally do so with the expectation that students have already learned the content in our classrooms. Where are the help and support from colleagues? Why must mathematics teachers bear the responsibility for helping all students learn mathematics when all teachers are supporting students in learning the reading and writing standards in a schoolwide literacy framework?

This is a question I hear often, a belief I once held, and a mindset in need of changing. Perhaps it is time to look at the issue through a new lens. How are the other subject area teachers working to support students’ learning in mathematics classrooms?

The November 2013 issue of Educational Leadership focused on teaching students to read and access informational text. As I read the journal, several statements struck me as similar to teaching students to read high-level tasks and mathematical texts.

Ehrenworth mentions teachers in subject areas needing to find text that is “accessible, engaging and complex”; if sufficiently complex, the informational text allows students to integrate ideas and feel success in meeting the challenge, gaining “new insights and epiphanies” through solving the task (Ehrenworth 2013, p. 18). Don’t we mathematics teachers do the same thing when finding worthwhile high cognitive tasks to use in class? What are students learning in other areas that will help us?

Frey and Fisher (2013) establish several considerations for reading informational text, three of which include a connection to mathematics learning: establish purpose, use close reading, and use collaborative conversations (pp. 35–37). Why should students engage in a task? What is the purpose of the work, and why does an answer need to be found? Can students generate their own questions? How can they interact with one another to challenge one another to solve problems using collective strategies? In close reading, teachers provide short passages and model posing questions while reading the text to monitor one’s own thinking. Students learn to annotate text and answer text-dependent questions that require critical thinking and to reread passages as needed.

Sound familiar? Perhaps the literacy framework used in cross-curricular areas can support students in learning mathematics. One challenge is for us to recognize the connections and tap into the strategies that students are already learning. Another challenge is to allow students time to struggle productively when solving problems and to develop curiosity to ask more questions and explore the true beauty of mathematics.

A teacher in Oregon recently shared with me the gains made by students in her Algebra 1 and Calculus AP classes when she started to focus on reading informational text as part of a schoolwide literacy program. Perhaps we all are working to deepen students’ critical thinking skills, and perhaps the island is really a community.


Frey, Nancy, and Douglas Fisher. 2013. “Points of Entry.” Educational Leadership 71 (3): 35 – 38.
Ehrenworth, Mary. 2013. “Unlocking the Secrets of Complex Text.” Educational Leadership 71 (3): 16–21.

SchuhlSarahSarah Schuhl has worked as a secondary mathematics teacher and instructional coach for twenty years, is an author, former MT Editorial Panel Chair, and consultant.  She enjoys working with teachers to find instructional and assessment practices that result in student learning 

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