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Strategy Spotlight: 4 Ways to Incorporate Writing in Math Class

Adding more writing to the curriculum helps students enhance their performance with this foundational skill.

By Lani Aquino

This Strategy Spotlight focuses on the importance of building foundational skills across disciplines. The Reading Teacher sheds some light on incorporating writing in a mathematics class with Writing in the Disciplines: How Math Fits into the Equation by Madelyn Colonnese, Christina Amspaugh, Steven LeMay, Kyle Evans, and Kathryn Field. This collaboratively written article delves into the underdeveloped arena of elementary mathematical writing.

The authors focus on four areas to help students build an understanding and ability to reason and communicate mathematically. The four areas of focus are exploratory, informative/explanatory, argumentative, and mathematically creative. The authors communicate these processes via short teaching vignettes to illustrate each concept.

4 Mathematical Writing Scenarios for an Elementary Classroom

  1. Exploratory Writing- Students use this strategy to make sense of a problem, situation, or their own ideas.

In Practice- Students in a 3rd grade class exploring fractions were asked to write in their journals about how fractions are used in everyday life. One student wrote about pizza slices and another applied the concept of fractions to partitioned graham crackers. During the class discussion that followed, the idea that the same fraction can mean different things came to light. Half a graham cracker would make quite a different impact on curbing one’s hunger as opposed to half a pizza.

  1. Informative/Explanatory Writing- Students use this method to describe or explain.

In Practice- Building off of the pizza and graham cracker realization, the teacher asked students to compare the amount of land covered by the playground and the blacktop. Students headed outdoors and employed various techniques to gather the needed measurement information. Once the data had been gathered, they returned to the classroom to write their theories. In reviewing students’ writing, the teacher was able to assess students’ abilities to understand that the size of the whole impacts the quantity represented by a fraction.

  1. Argumentative Writing- Students use this process to construct or critique an argument.

In Practice- Students gathered on the rug, and the teacher asked whether a whole was always bigger than a half. Most students stated that this was accurate, but a few did not concur. The teacher then proceeded to pass out a mini chocolate bar to each students who had expressed a whole was always bigger, and the teacher gave half of a full-sized bar to those who did not agree. After the chocolate distribution, students returned to their seats to respond to the prompt: “When comparing two different items, the whole of one item is always larger than one-half of another item. Do you agree or disagree, and why?”

  1. Mathematically Creative Writing­- Students focus on this area as they document original ideas, problems, and/or solutions, elaborate on ideas, and convey fluency and flexibility in thinking. 

In Practice- This area is often student-driven and sparked by a student’s curiosity to explore beyond the regular lesson. The example shared was an idea that came to one student as she completed a math worksheet. “If one-third as a decimal is 0.33333… and two-thirds is 0.6666666…, then why is three thirds equal to one and not 0.99999999…?”

The incorporation of more mathematical writing opportunities will help students in gaining a deeper understanding of the concepts explored. The addition of these strategies with purposeful discussion of the elements that are covered in the writing process adds a deeper layer to students’ logic and problem-solving abilities.

Applications for Other Areas

  • Writing and putting a narrative to process can be explored in any curriculum. It is simply a matter of finding the entry point for doing so.
  • The four mathematical areas shared will also easily lend themselves to scientific study and deepening the understanding of those curricular concepts.

Other Strategies for Math + Writing

  • Adding daily writing activities to math lessons can make this a more commonplace coupling. Daily journals, exit slips, and storytelling are a few possibilities.
  • Connecting speaking and writing by adding a fourth element to Think-Pair-Share can help students get their thought processes on paper with Think-Write-Pair-Share.

While mathematics and writing may not have gone hand-in-hand in the past, they should become a commonplace infusion moving forward. The ability to deepen students’ understandings of mathematical concepts while building the lifelong foundational skill of writing makes merging these two areas a win-win for students and teachers. Be sure to check back for future Strategy Spotlights that highlight strategies teachers use to impact learning.

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