Why Literacy Matters in High School Mathematics

Why Literacy Matters in High School Mathematics

Nationwide, literacy is the hot topic among elementary educators.  But as a high school educator, the common comment is “I shouldn’t have to teach reading in high school.”  Here are three reasons why literacy matters in high school mathematics.


As high school mathematics teachers, we know the importance of solid mathematical vocabulary. But are we using those words in class on a DAILY basis? I know I am not. I say things like “AC method” which is factoring by grouping.  “AC method” could mean a variety of different methods to factoring a quadratic.  This whole conversation is dependent on teachers having a discussion and vertically aligning K-12 on what vocabulary to introduce and when is the best time to introduce it. Building a vocabulary-aligned K-12 curriculum will only enhance our students’ mathematical experiences. For example, in fifth grade math, students are introduced to the idea of patterns given a rule. While the standards use the word “sequence” to describe the content being taught, students are not introduced to that word until Algebra 1. What if we decided that every time we speak on patterns, we describe them as sequences? That way when students get to Algebra 1 and begin to learn the algebra behind sequences and series it is not so intimidating. 

Word Problems and Applications

Two years ago, I had an eye-opening experience in my Algebra 2 class. We were prepping for our state end-of-course test and hit a wall with the application problems. My students could not read and interpret them. As we began talking through the problem, one of the students said, “Why can’t they [test creators] just ask us that?  I can do that.” My students could do the math but had issues understanding what the question was asking them to do when it was contextualized. The question this raises for me is how do we teach problem solving skills, or more generally, how do we teach students to dissect a text? Reading with purpose and understanding is one of the ELA standards starting in grade 1. The disconnect comes from believing the skills we are taught in ELA on context clues do not translate to mathematics. We could expose students to this by using mathematics textbooks as informational texts, for example. Or we could meet with English teachers to discover what strategic reading skills they are teaching and incorporate those into the mathematics classroom. 

National Tests

ACT released a study in 2006 on what the ACT scores reveal about students and their reading levels. At the time, only 51% of students were ready for college or workforce reading. Educators know the statistics for 3rd graders: if a 3rd grader is not reading on grade level, the chances they will catch up are slim. ACT looks at the effects long term. How does having a low reading level in high school affect their futures? According to one estimate, $16 billion per year is lost in decreased productivity and remedial costs for local businesses, universities, and underprepared high school students. [For more information, see the “Reading Between the Lines” study released by ACT.] If our students cannot read, how can we expect them to do well on tests that determine college and future readiness?

So what do we (high school mathematics teachers) do with this? First, recognize we are all responsible for teaching reading to our students. We do them a disservice when we box in our curriculum to just math or just reading. Second, start the conversation. Are we all using consistent language when talking about math, and are we using the language found on state and national tests? Once we have identified gaps, we can be more intentional about our classroom instruction. Third, do not dismiss opportunities to extend your reading education. Most high school teachers received little to no education on teaching reading in our teacher prep programs. If we believe we are ALL responsible for EVERY student, we must become aware of the areas we are deficient in and work to improve them.

Stacey Travis has taught HS mathematics at Maryville High School for thirteen years. She has her BS in mathematics, MS in secondary mathematics education, and her EdS in educational leadership and supervision, all from the University of Tennessee. Along with serving as a TEAM evaluator, Stacey has mentored and coached teachers through the TIGER/TEAM evaluation process. While serving as team leader, she led her department through a 1-to-1 digital conversion initiative. Currently, Stacey is focused on writing rigorous and relevant digital curriculum for her classes that engages students and helps them achieve goals beyond what they believe they are capable.