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What Do You Mean Teach WRITING During MATH?

by Jenny Hamilton on Nov 8, 2018

  • Literacy
  • Math
  • Step Up to Writing
  • Writing
Jenny Hamilton


When planning math instruction, writing activities probably do not come to mind; but, research tells us they should. When students write about what they are learning, retention is strengthened. It may seem difficult to incorporate writing instruction into your daily math routine, especially if it is a struggle for you. Brief writing activities during math allow you to incorporate distributive practice, feedback, and instructional clarity: keys to effective instruction across all content areas. Incorporating written responses into our daily math instruction is a powerful way to “see” how students are processing concepts. In the words of Sandra Keith, “Frequently, we may think we understand something when we only recognize it; we confuse familiarity with understanding. This becomes obvious when we have to explain it in writing.” The language of math is complicated, comparable to a foreign language. It consists of symbols, numbers, and words. Many of the strategies used during reading and language arts instruction fit into your daily math lesson plans and can enhance your effectiveness.

Vocabulary Instruction

First, consider the sophisticated and abstract vocabulary of mathematics. Many math terms are also polysemic or multiple-meaning words such as plane and yard. Other terms have affixes and are not in students’ oral language. When introducing math terms, take time to teach them with the same rigor you use when teaching vocabulary for reading. Breaking Down Definitions is one strategy that helps students put definitions in their own words by categorizing them, listing their attributes, and illustrating their meaning. Once you have presented the template, students can fold a blank sheet of paper to recreate it. Word Maps incorporate the idea of breaking down the definition and creating an illustration along with writing a meaningful sentence and making a personal connection. Making connections with math is critical in helping students understand its relevance and importance in their daily lives. To review and reinforce vocabulary, have students create and solve riddles. Writing a riddle requires them to think deeply about a word’s meaning to develop effective clues. For example: People call me “sir” for short. I like pie and I hang around circles. Who am I? Circumference.

Solving Word Problems

Students struggling with a word problem would agree that “mathematics is arguably the most difficult content area material to read; it presents more concepts per word, sentence, and paragraph than any other subject” (Schell, 1982). Many teachers use highlighting to help students identify important information contained in a word problem. Yet, often that is not enough. To help them deconstruct the word problem and work to solve it, consider using a graphic organizer that takes students through a series of steps. First, restate the problem, then list the facts. Next, list the clue words and then estimate or predict to help students ensure their answer is reasonable. Illustrate the problem and then solve it. The final step is to write the answer in a complete sentence. Consider having students begin by only completing the first two steps in the graphic organizer. Their early responses would reveal a great deal about their level of understanding. Asking students to illustrate the problem helps them visualize elements within it. They don’t always have to solve a word problem to benefit from analyzing one.

Graphs and Journals

Interpreting graphs is often a difficult task for students. Having them write to explain a graph is a powerful way to teach interpretive skills and strengthen understanding. Consider introducing a summary sentence such as an IVF statement, to start. An IVF statement is a three-part sentence that serves as a topic sentence for a summary paragraph. First, students identify the graph, the “I.” Next, they choose a strong summary verb, the “V.” Then, students finish the thought, the “F,” by capturing the information shown by the graph. Once the IVF statement is mastered, students begin adding a list of facts, or a fact outline, that delineates the information shown. In the final step, students use their fact outline and summary sentence to write a summary paragraph or use their outline to orally summarize their findings. Students can practice any of these steps without necessarily solving a problem using the graph’s data. A simple yet powerful daily warm-up could be an IVF statement written in their math journals. Journals are an effective way to encourage students to write about math every day. Have students write personal reflections about learning, take class notes, ask questions, or respond to a variety of prompts. Journal entries provide valuable student feedback and reveal needs to clarify instruction. 

According to the Communication Standards of the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics, instructional programs should enable students to “use the language of mathematics to express ideas precisely.” Step Up to Writing® addresses this standard and brings value to your daily math instruction far beyond meeting a standard. Math truly is the language of logic and by helping students learn to talk and write about it you are helping them master a powerful language.

Visit this link to learn more about Step Up to Writing. For more information on incorporating writing activities into your math instruction, see The Language of Math: Finding Common Ground In Perspectives on Language and Literacy, Winter 2017, pp 47–52.


Jenny Hamilton, M.Ed. has been a tireless advocate for students who struggle to achieve academic success. Her training and background in behavior management enables her to share practical solutions regarding classroom management issues. She also works with teachers to raise awareness of the emotional damage that accompanies academic failure. Jenny’s depth of experience in teaching elementary, middle, and high school students lends authenticity to her delivery when she trains and coaches teachers. A deep interest in the research behind best practices and the science of learning allows her to share with teachers and administrators current and relevant data on how the brain works and what can be done to change the trajectory of struggling readers and writers. She is currently an independent consultant focusing on literacy.

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