Writing in Math

  • by Kelly Harmon & Randi Anderson
  • Jan. 10, 2020, 12:24 p.m.

By Ashley Taplin

I was recently sent this quote from math guru, Marilyn Burns, in which she said, “I can no longer imagine teaching math without making writing an integral aspect of students’ learning. . . . Writing in math class requires students to organize, clarify, and reflect on their ideas” (Schmoker, 2018). As I began to reflect on integrating more opportunities for writing in my own classroom, I realized it was these fundamental skills from writing that deepened my student’s mathematical comprehension. I also gained new insight into their level of understanding as it was a more personal mode of communication beyond route calculation. But, just like math, writing requires practice and intentionality, and the more exposure, encouragement, and feedback we can give to students, the more competent and confident they will become. Below are some ideas to incorporate as you are beginning or continuing to develop writing in your classroom.

Ideas for Starting Small

  • One sentence response: Ask students to respond to a prompt with one complete sentence. Use sentence stems to help students, especially EL learners, by having a starting point and a way to frame their thoughts. Sample sentence stems I love using are: “The first step I did to solve the problem was…, I think this makes sense/doesn’t make sense because…, I noticed that…” One book I also find helpful for this is 7 Steps to a Language Rich Classroom.

  • Opening Multiple Choice: Have students write explanations for why any incorrect multiple-choice answer is wrong (Doug Reeves; Schmoker, 2018). This level of error analysis coupled with writing will “exercise students' critical and mathematical reasoning capacities and the ability to give verbal form to numbers and equations” (Schmoker, 2018).

  • Think-Ink-Pair-Share: Allow students time to write after thinking and before sharing aloud. I was recently listening to a podcast by Cult of Pedagogy in which she explained the importance of this to help students organize and summarize their thoughts and in turn, build their confidence and clarity.

Classroom Writing to Math with Classroom Supply

One of my favorite classroom supplies that allows for seamless transitions from math into writing is this composition notebook that has half graph paper and half lined paper. These are a perfect way to have students respond to a notice and wonder statement (“I notice…” and “I wonder…”) or to take it a step further and write longer responses using vocabulary and key features from a graphed function. The novelty of this paper and the ease of the layout makes this a fun tool to use.

Writing with an SEL Focus

Writing also opens great opportunities to connect Social Emotional Learning and one activity I recently did with teachers to take back to their classroom was “Pass it On” from CASEL. To do this in your classroom, ask students to fold a paper in fourths, write a response to a prompt (ex. what is one thing you remember about long division) in one quadrant, and then and then pass their papers and read and respond in a new quadrant on that paper. Using this activity “enables participants to share ideas with each other in a quiet, focused way…and helps to develop the Self-Awareness skill of Self-Efficacy, Relationship Skills, and Responsible Decision Making” (CASEL, 2019).

Kelly Harmon and Randi Anderson

About The Authors

Kelly Harmon & Associates began in 2001 with a mission of instructional coaching and providing rich literacy resources for educators and parents. Our work incorporates research-based best practices for teaching and learning.

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