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Reading to Learn

Teaching Students to Become Active Readers of Mathematics and Science


With the school year recently having come to a close, summer reading lists are already being devoured. Though many secondary students (grades 6 12) will be busy poring over standards such as Morrison’s Beloved and Orwell’s 1984 to get ready for next fall’s English class, few will be doing so for their mathematics and science courses. One reason for this oversight is that most students find their textbooks as accessible as the latest cell phone programming manuals.

Though many of us can toss the manuals and through trial and error figure out how to make and answer a phone call, the same cannot be said for acquiring basic mathematical and scientific procedural fluencies - like using the quadratic formula to find the roots of a degree two polynomial. Further, though conceptual understanding can be facilitated with structured, collaborative hands-on investigations (geometric constructions and chemistry labs are two examples that come to mind), learning this content through the written word is important too.

In contrast to perusing someone’s MySpace page, learning from mathematics and science texts requires active reading. Active reading is strategic reading; reading for specific purposes within specific contexts. Typically, active readers use specific reading comprehension strategies, such as checking inferences, making connections to prior knowledge, analyzing text features, and monitoring their own thinking, to make meaning of new material and identify their own mis- and non-understandings along the way. Despite support for such critical reading skills by the Report of the National Reading Panel (2000) and the RAND Study Group on Reading Comprehension (2002), many secondary students are not considered to be active readers of mathematics and science texts.

And this is because there is no official expectation of them to do so. Nowhere in the California Mathematics or California Science Standards is such a standard written, much less explicated. Though the California English Language Arts Standards have set reading comprehension standards for grade levels 6 12 - which focus on structural features, analysis, and expository critique - they are explicitly tied to consumer, workplace, and public documents, not to mathematics and science texts. Although there is no state-administered exam to explicitly measure a student’s active reading proficiency, it is tacitly and tangentially assessed on the state’s mathematics and science standardized tests when students have to read and interact with the items. It is unknown how much of a student’s mathematical or science score, and more importantly their learning, is affected by their active reading skills (or lack thereof).

Students don’t actively read usually because they aren’t taught to. Though most secondary English teachers teach active reading skills for narrative texts (like the novels on the summer reading list, and the aforementioned expository documents), they spend little or no time doing so for mathematics and science texts. So, while considering the author’s point of view, for example, would help students better understand Orwell’s dystopic vision of a state-dominated society, it won’t help students better understand proportional reasoning or mitosis. On the other side, most secondary mathematics and science teachers don’t consider teaching such skills as part of their charge. Even if they did, most don’t have the training to teach such reading skills. Similarly, many English teachers don’t feel comfortable enough with their middle and high school math and science skills to bridge this gap.

Left unattended are the students, who often are unaware of the existence of, much less the need to hone such reading skills for mathematics and science learning. As a result, most students view their texts as repositories for formulaic homework problems, not as tools for learning. It is stomach-wrenching to watch students engage with new written material for 20 - 30 seconds, then throw up their hands in defeat, in part because they have few or no active reading tools to help them interact with that text. Worse is then hearing a student say “I don’t get it” and waiting meekly until a teacher, paraprofessional, or parent comes over and tells him, “Oh, what this really means is:.” While the adult is honing her reading comprehension skills by doing the mental heavy lifting, the child is learning to be lazy and dependent on others to do his job - actively questioning and generating meaning. Orwell would not be pleased.

Because each content area has its own register - the meanings in a language that serve specific purposes, including the words and structures that convey those meanings - active reading instruction for mathematic and scientific learning should take place primarily within math and science classrooms. Still, certain standards-meeting lessons should be facilitated in English classrooms, as well to support the development of this important skill. To these ends, long-term, systemic, collaborative professional development should be provided for secondary mathematics, science, and English teachers so that our students not only better learn mathematics and science, but also become independent critical thinkers who can fully participate democratically and economically in our society.

Dr. Carl Lager is an assistant professor in the Department of Education and the Teacher Education Program at UC Santa Barbara’s Gevirtz School.

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