Reading & Literacy

Math and Literacy: Not-So-Strange Bedfellows

By Francesca Duffy — February 29, 2012 2 min read

In a unique, job-embedded teacher-research project started last summer, four educators in Columbia, Mo., are attempting to explore the effectiveness of integrating literacy strategies into mathematics instruction.

The researchers, as it happens, are somewhat conveniently situated husband and wife teams. The husbands, Ryan Pingrey and Josephus Johnson, both teach high school math in Columbia—at Hickman High and West Junior High, respectively. Their wives, Jayme Pingrey and Danielle Johnson, teach a class on literacy at the University of Missouri’s College of Education and are working on their dissertations.

Danielle Johnson says that the project—which is overseen by University of Missouri education professors John and Amy Lannin, yet another married couple—has its origins in the couples’ mutual curiosity about whether reflective writing tasks might help improve students’ understanding of math concepts. “It’s all about looking for connections between English and math that can be utilized in classrooms,” she says.

As part of the study, Jayme Pingrey worked with husband Ryan to integrate an “exit slip” writing activity into his 10th and 11th grade intervention-algebra class this fall. Two or three times a week, Ryan’s students were asked to write about at least one thing that they had learned, using a “freewriting” style often reserved for English classes.

“The exit slips really gave Ryan an idea of what kids knew, or what they thought they knew, that they wouldn’t share in class,” says Jayme Pingrey. “A lot of the kids had very insightful questions and it helped him understand where the gaps were in their understanding and learning.”

There was a problem, however: The students grew tired of the exercise after six weeks. Now the team is planning to incorporate new exercises that will be more closely intertwined with the subject matter, such as studying the meanings of math terms.

For Josephus Johnson’s honors geometry class, meanwhile, the researchers found that the writing exercises had to be construed differently to accommodate the more advanced students’ learning needs. Since the students initially indicated on their exit slips that they were not struggling with any of the math content, Josephus began to give them writing assignments attached to particular math problems. The students not only had to figure out the answer to the problem, but they were required to “use writing to understand the actual process involved in getting to the correct answer,” Danielle Johnson explains. The honors students were also given problems with incorrect answers and were required to write about the errors and how they likely arose.

According to Jayme Pingrey, the results of the experiment so far suggest that writing in fact increases students’ level of engagement with math content and processes. She also notes that the benefits of including writing in math classes can be “bigger than learning.”

For instance, the written work can help to build better relationships between the teacher and student, she says. Her husband Ryan’s students sometimes used their writing to bring up situations they were struggling with in their personal lives. This was a notable result, Jayme says, since “math is usually a little less personal area of a curriculum.”

The couples presented the beginnings of their research at the 2011 National Council for Teachers of English’s annual conference, in a session titled, “A Marriage of Reading and Math.” After gathering more evidence, they are hoping eventually to publish a paper on their findings.

A version of this article appeared in the March 01, 2012 edition of Teacher PD Sourcebook as Math and Literacy: Not-So-Strange bedfellows

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