The Art of Deciphering Math Texts

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By Joan Piper

From the Fall 2010 Caller
The Catlin Gabel math department reaps huge rewards from how our English department teaches active reading. That’s the only way to read a math book!
In doing active reading, we expect that students will come across things they don’t understand. What happens next depends a great deal on the level of the course. In advanced mathematics textbooks, there’s considerable depth, and you want your students to sit there with pencil and paper and not take any single word for granted. Higher-level textbooks commonly leave out explanations that are key to understanding.
In lower-level courses such as Algebra I, it is often difficult for students to read, interpret, and solve word problems. Doing the algebra is not the problem: it’s transforming the words to symbols that stumps them, and here the teacher needs to help.
When I was an editor of math textbooks for Houghton Mifflin and Prentiss Hall, I got an inside look at the publishing industry. What goes into textbooks is generally prescribed by state standards, and we independent school teachers have little control over it. What shows up in the books can differ from what we want to emphasize. For example, in our two-year integrated Algebra 2/Geometry course, we want to use texts that focus on deductive and inductive reasoning. We designed our courses and then looked for a book, not the other way around. We compensate by using a lot of additional resources, and we’ve made it work pretty well.
Some independent schools have decided to produce their own math materials because of this predicament. I hope that after one or two more years of teaching the integrated course, it will make sense for us to do so, too.