Reading in Math Class Strengthens Student Engagement

Every January, Nashville teacher Joel Bezaire reads The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time aloud to his students. Sounds pretty standard, right? It would be for an English class, but Bezaire is teaching reading in math class. The novel is part of a unit on number sense. 

While it’s easy to envision using math picture books in elementary school classrooms, literature for older grades poses a bigger challenge. Can reading fit into the curriculum as the books get longer and the math gets more complex? Bezaire thinks it can, and so does another teacher, Sam Shah, of Brooklyn. The two occupy opposite ends of the secondary math spectrum — seventh-grade pre-algebra and 12th-grade calculus, respectively — and both have found ways to strengthen student engagement through reading.

During Bezaire’s Curious Incident unit, each period begins with a typical 20-minute math lesson, followed by a 15-minute discussion of the previous day’s reading. For the rest of the 55-minute period, he reads a new chapter aloud. As he reads, Bezaire often pauses to dig deeper into the story’s math. Sometimes, the concepts align directly with the day’s pre-algebra lesson. For example, on the day when they learn about prime numbers, the class also reads why the main character, Christopher, chose primes as his system for labeling chapters. Putting reading in math may seem unusual, but Bezaire swears by it. 

“The literary hook for this lesson is strong, and kids are really into learning more about primes thanks to the context of the story,” said Bezaire. “The lessons don’t always line up this nicely, but so much of what Christopher writes about regarding mathematics is about flexibility with numbers that it’s a really nice match.”

After class students complete written reflections about the book, with different types of questions serving multiple pedagogical goals. Mathematical questions, which often relate to puzzling out the novel’s two mysteries, allow students to practice problem-solving strategies in a context with more buy-in than the usual practice worksheets. They also encourage deeper thinking about the reasoning behind a math strategy. For example, after students test Christopher’s method for mental math with large multiplication, they are asked how easy or hard it was and when it might be most useful.

Questions related to plot and language help less confident math students. “Students who more easily self-identify as ‘English types’ immediately get a little more comfortable in math class if they experience those types of (literary) questions regularly,” Bezaire said. 

Others questions invite students to connect personally with the text. For instance, one question asks students to share the meaning of their name. Another asks them to consider how it might affect their interactions if they could not read facial expressions, like Christopher, who has autism. These questions allow Bezaire to learn about his students in ways that equations cannot. They also improve students’ patience and understanding with each other, he said.

“Context and prior knowledge are critical components in fostering comprehension, regardless of the topic,” according to Faith Wallace, co-author of Teaching Math Through Reading. Reading literature is one of several ways to build that context and background knowledge. “When math is integral to the story students can learn the concepts in a natural way, become inquisitive, engage in thoughtful conversation, and more,” said Wallace.

The combination of putting reading in math, along with personal reflection and the students’ genuine interest in the story, leads to higher student engagement, Bezaire said. Year after year, his students who previously kept quiet raised their hands during discussions of The Curious Incident. “Very often, this continues into the rest of the year after our novel study is done,” he said. “Often when middle school students get momentum in a certain class, they are hardy enough to allow it to continue even when the unit of study changes.” 

Allison Green
Boston Tutoring Services

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