Reading Math

My Algebra II kids don’t like to read the textbook. Heck, neither do my calculus students. This isn’t surprising. It’s extra work and it’s hard. My class also makes it hard for them, because I do not use the textbook as a skeletal structure for the course. I teach mainly out of my own materials, and use the book more as a supplement.

But that doesn’t mean that I don’t want them reading math. Kids are never taught to “read” a math textbook. If they ever do approach a math textbook, they approach it like a history book. The read it linearly. They also read it passively. Their eyes glaze over. They read words, but they don’t try to connect the words to the equations or pictures. They don’t read with a pencil in their hands. They hope for some Divine Knowledge to descend upon them simply by having the book open and their eyes on it.

That doesn’t work. We all know this. Reading math is an active thing.

And so recently I’ve started talking with my class about it. To start this process/discussion, one that I hope continues, I gave my students a worksheet to fill out (see above). I love the honesty with which they responded.

For question A, some representative responses:

“I read what was assigned to me but did not read anything extra.”
“I find that textbook reading is pretty boring, so I don’t do it unless I have to.”
“I did not because I had assumed I wouldn’t learn things I needed. All I would do was look at examples.”
“No, I find it difficult to understand math when reading it in paragraphs; it makes more sense to me with a teacher.”
“I did not generally read my math textbooks. I did, however, always look over the example problems.”

Some responses for Question B:

1. The writing can be confusing, wordy, and not thorough
2. The book is BORING
3.  Small print
4. Too many words for math
5. Outdated examples

Some responses for Question C

1. Everything is all in one place
2. Have a glossary
3. Can read at own pace; refer pack to the text when I get stuck
4. Sidenotes! Diagrams! Pictures
5. Real life examples
6. Definitions clear
7. Key terms are highlighted
8. Wide range of example problems with step by step instructions
9. Colors!

I hope to do more as we go along. I might have them learn on their own, using the textbook (and the online video help) a whole section or two. There’s no reason they can’t learn to use the book to be independent learners. I will give them class time and photocopies of the section they need to learn, and they will have to figure things out by the end of the class for a 3 question quiz.

I also hope that by the end of the year, we can use their critique of math textbooks for them to write their own textbook. Okay, okay, not quite. That’s way too ambitious for me. Two years ago I had my Algebra II kids write really comprehensive Study Guides for the final exam. This year I might ask my kids to pick some of the hardest material and create their own “textbook” for it. They’ll get to write it in pairs, and then they can share their finished product with the rest of the class. That will probably happen in the 3rd for 4th quarter.

Anyway, I thought I’d share. Since I like to emphasize the importance of mathematical communication to my kids (though I don’t do it nearly enough), I thought I’d talk about this one additional component in addition to getting students to talk and write math… READING MATH!



  1. I found that reading “How to read a book” by Mortimer J Adler really helped me learn how to read a book I intended (or needed to) learn from. Most people (according to the book, and I agree) never learn to read beyond an elementary level, and this book teaches you how to read at a higher level. Works really well when you start using the techniques and such while reading the book. I’d encourage you to check it out.

  2. My son has learned most of his math from reading books—he finds classroom instruction excruciatingly slow and has a hard time staying alert. He does sometimes need an explanation different from the one in the book, which (so far) I’ve been able to provide for him. Unlike your students, he finds the colors, sidebars, and gratuitous pictures distracting rather than helpful. So far, the best books for him have been from the Art of Problem Solving series, which have very clear but concise explanations.

    I think that reading speed makes a big difference: kids who read slower than talking speed have a harder time gathering information from books than from oral presentation.

  3. I still remember that linear algebra class I took at the local college. The prof taught the value of sloooooow reading. (it ruined his ability to read a novel at a fast pace) I turned this into a lesson.

    Slide 1: how do you read math?
    Slide 2: slowly
    Slide 3: scanned example modeling the correct pace of reading—we don’t move on without understanding.

    As usual, we describe these things and wonder why we don’t do them more often.


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