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Reading Challenges Can Hinder Progress in Math

Geoff Nixon

By Geoff Nixon

The Reading and Math Achievement Connection

In talking with people about learning challenges, especially regarding younger students, I often hear that an individual is struggling in reading, but doing fine or excelling in math. We all have our strengths and challenges and subjects that capture our interest more than others. But reading difficulties will likely impact all academic content eventually, including math.

Although few formal studies have been done on the connection between reading and math achievement, there is a consensus about reading ability having an impact on math assessment results and problem solving. Several articles point out that the language in math texts is often well above the grade level of concepts shared. Math books also frequently introduce new vocabulary. The use of similar terms like subtract and take away can confuse learners.

This happens when synonyms are not clearly defined and are used interchangeably during lessons. Math problems often present information out of context, requiring students to assess and understand a situation with limited information.

Math Problems Are Like Stories

Most math problems are mini stories: facts or details without elaboration. Sometimes they are incomplete, requiring ­the reader to interpret important details to draw conclusions or work backwards, using the ending to determine missing information. Sometimes they contain unnecessary details that can complicate or hinder understanding, especially for a struggling reader.

Coping mechanisms like searching for key words or scanning a problem for numbers and using the current operation studied to combine or separate them can backfire on assessments. Many problems include keywords as red herrings. And short cuts are often ineffective when solving multi-step problems or assignments that target more than one skill.

Making Connections

Beginning reading instruction focuses on introducing story structure (characters, setting, problem, and solution). This provides students with a familiar schema or framework to help interpret and organize information. It is eventually followed by strategies such as sequencing, making connections, rereading, identifying the main idea, using context clues, reasoning, and note taking. A similar approach can be applied when reading about math concepts, reviewing assignment or test instructions or solving word problems.

Try sharing a word problem with your child. Just focus on the details and main idea before considering next steps. Discuss the structure and how the information provided can be used to determine the problem. Make a plan together for how to solve it.

Making connections is just as valuable in math as in reading. Word problems often contain familiar subject matter. It allows students to visualize the problem, improving comprehension and recall. Recognizing a concept’s real world application can also help students identify the correct operation or problem solving step and draw attention to how often they use or observe others using math outside of the classroom.

Encourage your child to reread, when necessary, or take notes on important information needed to solve a problem. It’s also important to review directions or problems after finding the solution, to see if the ending or conclusion answers the question posed and/or makes sense based on the information given.

Apply Reading Strategies to Math

Reading difficulties are likely to impact math comprehension and achievement, especially as students get older and the content becomes more challenging. Encourage your child to try this approach. Talk through task directions and problem content and summarize information given and asked. Understanding and anticipating reading related challenges in a math setting can help avoid frustration.

Accommodations, like extended time or having directions read aloud, can help achievement when available. Exploring the role literature can play in presenting difficult concepts is also valuable. Books like Eating Fractions, The Greedy Triangle, Bennies Pennies, or The Doorbell Rang are just a few titles for early learners that illustrate this.

Stories can bring a concept to life and leave a lasting impression, creating that connection. As with all learning challenges, being proactive and providing interventions and strategies early on can lead to success later.

If you have concerns about your child’s reading, look for early symptoms here and dyslexia symptoms here.

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