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Reconceptualizing Roles: Mathematics and
Reading
by Mary Jane Schmitt
When I first started teaching mathematics to
adults in basic education programs, about 25 years ago, I believed in and used
individualized assessment, instruction, and  to the extent possible 
curriculum. I diagnosed the computational gaps, took into account the adult's
long term goals, made a plan to fill in those gaps, and then the student and I
set upon the task of making it happen. It was called diagnostic or prescriptive
teaching, and it seemed a great deal more learner centered and efficient than a
brush up or a review course where everyone was expected to be on the same page
at the same time. The thinking was that no one would ever be "left behind" or
lost again because everyone could learn at his or her own pace.
Learners didn't talk much to each other in those early classes of mine. It was a
twoway teacherlearner dialogue. The mathematical content emphasis was largely
computation and workbook driven. The word problems at the end of a chapter
provided students with a way to practice the computational algorithms just
covered.
Another notion I had was that I was a math teacher, not a reading teacher.
Rather than take on the responsibility of helping students improve their
reading, I skirted the reading issue by controlling the reading level of the
word problems. I had a slew of workbooks, and I dealt with different reading
levels by using word problems that matched a student's reading level. I audio
taped problem sets for beginning readers.
Emerging Trends
Today, while I am no longer a classroom teacher, I work closely with adult basic
education (ABE) and k12 mathematics teachers, and what I see emerging are some
significant and positive trends. The first is that the definition of the
mathematics essential for adults is expanding. A group of ABE teachers in
Massachusetts posits that "math is more than computation. It is a set of
concepts, principles, and relationships which serves as a powerful symbol system
and tool for describing and analyzing our world." They and several other state
and local ABE math teacher teams are working to adapt the NCTM Curriculum and
Evaluation Standards for School Mathematics (National Council of Teachers of
Mathematics, 1989) to the ABE classroom. As a result, there seems to be more
variety within mathematics curricula. Adults are not just learning how to
manipulate numbers, they are also collecting, displaying, and analyzing data;
creating and identifying patterns, relations, and functions; developing a
stronger sense of number and operation; and exploring spatial and geometric
relationships.
Secondly, I am working with teachers who are purposefully emphasizing more
realistic and relevant problem solving situations rather than the controlled
one or twostep word problems. As a result, math students are more engaged in
reading, writing, speaking, and listening. When problem situations depend on
gathering information from a variety of everyday sources, such as articles and
advertisements in newspapers and magazines, prose literacy and mathematical
literacy are hard to separate. Understanding the problem becomes much more
complex than knowing a list of key words  ‘more' means add, ‘less' means
subtract, ‘of' means times  to solve formulaic word problems.
Finally, what strikes me is that ABE students are talking and writing to each
other about mathematics. What I see frequently are cooperative learning groups,
which promote mathematical discourse, and assessments with open response and
open ended items, which require students to explain and defend their thinking.
Teachers are also emphasizing the ability to move freely between a variety of
ways of describing a mathematical concept: in algebraic symbols, everyday
situations, pictorial representations, graphs, tables, and written and oral
explanations. "Doing mathematics" requires communication skills that draw not
only upon computation, but also on reading, writing, listening, and speaking.
Changing Roles
In all of this, it's interesting to think about the way roles are changing. ABE
teachers and learners, faced with new ways of approaching mathematics, have to
stretch well beyond businessasusual because both are learning new skills, and
are engaged as learners. It isn't easy to write or talk about mathematics when
you've never done it before. Most of us  teachers and students  learned to
do mathematics as a solitary activity and kept our mathematical thinking to
ourselves. The roles of the math and language arts teachers begin to coincide,
too. Teachers, facilitating a classroom environment where students learn to
communicate mathematically, are employing techniques such as brainstorming,
group story writing, journals, and interviews  the same techniques found in
literacy classrooms.
________________________________________
Mathematics Now
The Massachusetts Adult Basic Education Math Standards (1994), developed by a
group of ABE math teachers, exemplify the direction mathematics is taking. Here
is an excerpt from the Standards:
"In the adult basic education classroom, curriculum design must include
approaches to teaching mathematics as communication that allow learners to:
develop appropriate reading, writing, listening, and speaking skills necessary
for communicating mathematically in numerous settings;
discuss with others, reflect and clarify their own thinking about mathematical
outcomes, and make convincing arguments and decisions based on these
experiences;
define everyday, workrelated or testrelated situations using concrete,
pictorial, graphical, or algebraic methods;
appreciate the value of mathematical language and notation in relation to
mathematical ideas."
________________________________________
Looking Ahead
For ABE math classes to continue to evolve as communities of competent problem
solvers and communicators, it will take the combined skills of literacy and
numeracy practitioners. As a first step, I'd like to see a dialogue about
integrating language and mathematics skill development, and perhaps the focus of
that discussion could start with GED preparation, where mathematics is imbedded
in several of the items on the social studies and science tests and where all
the mathematics test items are contextualized problems. Or the dialogue could
begin around the definitions of mathematical literacy and numeracy and literacy
and the importance of each in the adult roles of worker, citizen, and parent.
Wherever it starts, the point is the same: mathematics and literacy must proceed
together.
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Questions for Selfreflection and/or Discussion
1. If you have been teaching math for ten years or so, have you experienced the
news trends in teaching math that Schmitt is talking about? Do you think the
trends constitute a positive change?
2. Do your students “communicate mathematically”?
3. Do you agree that math and literacy coincide? If you adopt this belief, how
are you planning learning activities? Have you worked together with ESL or basic
skills teachers
around this concept?
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