Monday, March 13, 2006

Show 'n' Tell for Parents:


Q. Is there any connection between reading disability and math disability?

Yes. If you’ve ever wondered how a math student can be so bright and yet do so poorly on standardized tests, it may well be that the student isn’t reading well enough to comprehend the questions. We’re not teaching students how to read logically and systematically. That hurts their ability to think logically and systematically. And in turn, that hurts their math achievement.

Why? Because schools today don’t teach quick and accurate decoding of words with phonics-only reading instruction. Instead, they use a mixture of strategies that can be confusing. It’s called the “Whole Language” method, or “balanced literacy” or “eclectic approach.”

The students are taught to guess at words in text using cues, including what the context of the sentence might suggest. In approaching an unfamiliar word, the student’s eyes are trained to look at the start of the word, and then the end of the word, and back to the start, and maybe up to the illustration, and think about what it might mean, and then take a guess.

The student is not taught that reading goes from left to right, top to bottom, but instead is left to “discover” what text might mean in whatever visual approach to the words the student might take. This leads to looping and skipping the eyes all over a page of text, scanning for cues and so forth. Unfortunately, that habit spills over onto math schoolwork. If math teachers want to know why so many students today can’t remember to write their names on their papers, skip whole problems accidentally, or miss a lot of problems because they misread the directions, this is why.

A lot of students with reading problems go into special education programs that give them strategies for improving comprehension. But they don’t really work, and especially not for math. The special education technique of “key word triggers” – spotting what looks like an important word in a sentence or paragraph and focusing your problem-solving efforts on it, instead of accurately comprehending the whole paragraph – also has infested math instruction, to the detriment of math understanding and achievement. Students can only scan and guess, not analyze.

As the words in schoolwork become more and more complex in later grade school and on into the secondary years, reading comprehension declines. This is because the students don’t have the vocabulary, decoding and word attack skills that come from proper phonics instruction. That’s why so many students today can’t work a math problem with a three- or four-part order of directions; they can’t understand the directions in the first place because they lack the reading comprehension.

Then there are the math textbooks. They’re often not very well-written, which just makes it harder for the students to discern what to do. Today the focus is on story problems with a reduction on computation. The books focus more on reasoning skills and problem-solving. Often, just a little bit of math is wrapped up in a great deal of text: “critical thinking exercises” or “higher-order thinking skills.” The net effect is to trivialize math and make the math portion of a story problem a minor part of it, instead of placing it where it belongs: on center stage.

Now, nobody is against reasoning and problem-solving. It’s just that, if you’re not teaching kids how to compute answers, they’re not going to have the tools to reason and problem-solve. They’re only going to be able to estimate and guess.

What’s the answer? Phonics-only reading instruction from K-3.

Homework: For a great look by a math professor at the impact of poor reading instruction on math achievement, see “If Johnny Can’t Read and Follow Directions, Then He Can’t Do Math,” on

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