Research and Best Practice

Reading, writing, and mathematics are, or should be, inseparable. Hands-on mathematics can stimulate curiosity, engage student interest and build important prior knowledge before students read or write about the topic. The more students know about a topic, the better they comprehend and learn from text on the topic. Prior knowledge is the strongest predictor of student ability to make inferences from text.

Hands-on mathematics, though, must be combined with minds-on activities. Reading and writing activities can help students analyze, interpret and communicate mathematical ideas. These are skills needed to evaluate sources of information and the validity of the information itself, a key competency for mathematically literate citizens.

Many of the process skills needed for mathematics are similar to reading skills and, when taught together, would reinforce each other. Examples of common skills are predicting, inferring, communicating, comparing and contrasting, and recognizing cause and effect relationships. Teachers who recognize the interrelatedness of mathematics and literacy processes can design instruction that reflects these similarities. Becoming a Nation of Readers suggests that the most logical place for instruction in most reading and thinking strategies is in the content areas rather than in separate lessons about reading.

The importance of writing in the mathematics classroom cannot be overemphasized. In the process of writing, students clarify their own understanding of mathematics and hone their communication skills. They must organize their ideas and thoughts more logically and structure their conclusions in a more coherent way. Competency in writing can only be accomplished through active practice; solving mathematics problems is a natural vehicle for increasing students’ writing competence.

Classroom Implications

Motivating and engaging students to speak, ask questions, learn new vocabulary and write their thoughts comes easily when they are curious, exploring and engaged in their own mathematics inquiry. Teachers can take advantage of students’ innate wonder and inquisitiveness to develop language skills while learning mathematics concepts. Integrating literacy activities into mathematics classes helps clarify concepts and can make mathematics more meaningful and interesting. Teachers can use a wide variety of literature, including trade books, texts and fiction. Selecting a fiction book with a mathematical theme both provides information and captivates student interest. Fiction works successfully with young learners by embedding cognitive learning in imaginative stories.

Asking students to write mathematics journals about their problem-solving experiences or to articulate and defend their views about mathematics-related issues provides opportunities to clarify their thinking and develop communications skills. Other ways to integrate writing in mathematics are recording and describing situations that involve mathematics, and writing persuasive letters on social issues like the use of sampling by the Census Bureau. National Council of Teachers of Mathematics provides annual lists of outstanding new literature and multimedia materials.

For English language learners, instruction in mathematics can be enhanced by the use of hands-on materials. Interacting with materials and phenomena enables English language learners to ask and answer questions of the materials themselves and use the materials as visual aids in conversation with the teacher and peers. Visual and auditory clues should be plentiful – charts with pictures of materials and key procedures, for example. Teachers should select vocabulary carefully, repeat key words often, and refer to charts with the written words. Working in pairs or small groups makes native language support by peers or instructional aides more feasible.

Mathematics teachers can help all students increase their comprehension of mathematics texts by activating their prior knowledge through brainstorming, discussing the topic, asking questions and providing analogies. Specific attention to vocabulary is often necessary to enable comprehension of mathematics texts. Teachers should introduce new vocabulary and use a graphic organizer, concept or semantic map or collaborative peer study techniques to develop understanding of new words.


Anderson, R.C., and E.H. Hiebert, I.A.G. Scott. Becoming a Nation of Readers: The Report of the Commission on Reading (Washington, D.C.: The National Institute of Education, 1984).

Barton, M.L., and C. Heidema. Teaching Reading in Mathematics, second edition (Aurora, Colo.: Mid-continent Research for Education and Learning, 2002).

Billmeyer, R., and ML Barton. Teaching Reading in the Content Areas (Aurora, Colo.: Mid-continent Research for Education and Learning, 1988).

National Commission of Excellence in Education. A Nation at Risk: The Imperative for Educational Reform (Washington, D.C.: U.S. Government Printing Office, 1983).

Reprinted with permission from EDThoughts – What We Know About Mathematics Teaching and Learning, edited by J. Sutton and A. Krueger (Aurora, Colo.: Mid-continent Research for Education and Learning, 2002) pp. 50-51.

Comments and questions may be directed to him via e-mail at

[©2003, IDRA. This article originally appeared in the IDRA Newsletter by the Intercultural Development Research Association. Every effort has been made to maintain the content in its original form. However, accompanying charts and graphs may not be provided here. To receive a copy of the original article by mail or fax, please fill out our information request and feedback form. Permission to reproduce this article is granted provided the article is reprinted in its entirety and proper credit is given to IDRA and the author.]