Writing to Learn Math

2009 Challenge - Day 72: Pencil
Image by ☼zlady via Flickr

Have you considered experimenting with writing in your math class this year? It seems that math journals are a growing fad, and for good reason:

Writing is how we think our way into a subject and make it our own.

William Zinsser
Writing to Learn

Math journal entries can be as simple as class notes, or they can be research projects that take hours of experimentation and pondering. Students may use the journal to store their thoughts as they work several days to solve a challenge problem of the week, or they might jot down quick reflections about what they learned in today’s math class.

Here are some links to get you started on writing a math journal.

Math Journaling in General

Logistics of Math Journals: Frequently Asked Questions (pdf 105KB)
Tips for using math journals in the classroom, by the authors of this math journaling lesson for grades 3-5.

Math Journals Boost Real Learning
An article by Marilyn Burns in Scholastic Instructor magazine, April 2001. Math journals “help students stretch their thinking and make sense of problems,” and they can help teachers evaluate student progress.

Using Writing in Mathematics
When and how to introduce math journaling, and how to move from feeling-oriented, open-ended questions to more specifically mathematical thinking and writing. Heavy use of the term “metacognition,” with examples from teachers’ journal writing about using math journals.

How to Get Elementary Students Writing About Math

Math Journals and Other Math Ideas for Primary Grade Teachers
Journaling tips and story problems based on children’s literature for kindergarten and early elementary students.

Math Journal Ideas
A list of 30 writing prompts from a Catholic homeschooling mom.

Writing in Mathematics
Mathwire.com‘s September 2007 Back-to-School Issue: How to use writing in an elementary math class, with several links to articles and lesson ideas.

Journal Topics for Older Students

MathNotations blog
Challenging problems and investigations for grades 7-12, with an emphasis on developing conceptual understanding in mathematics. Scroll WAY down the sidebar for a detailed topic list, making it easy to find whatever your student needs to practice.

Thinking Mathematically
A book that will lead the junior-high through adult-level student step by step, using a journal to think your way through challenging math problems—including what to do when you are stuck and can’t find a solution. Many of the problems used as examples are traditional brain teasers and recreational math puzzles.

Using Art Projects to Create a Math Adventure…
See how a high school algebra teacher uses a math journaling project as the centerpiece of his curriculum. Photo-heavy page, but worth waiting for, even on a slow dial-up connection like mine. Students use fine-point permanent markers and quality colored pencils in artists’ sketchbooks, and then they sponge the pages of their journal with coffee for a beautiful, parchment-like effect.

Read the Sequel

I would never have predicted the popularity of the search topic “writing in math class.” I’ve collected a bunch of new links:

And for more great links on learning and teaching math:

14 thoughts on “Writing to Learn Math

  1. This is one of those ideas that sounds so obvious once you hear it. We learn even symbolic abstractions through written and verbal communication, so why wouldn’t a journal help to crystalize ideas about math? My blog serves as my own personal math journal, and when I am learning new math concepts, I go so far as to conduct an audible monologue to ensure I really understand.

    Math Notations is a wonderful resource; I read it daily.

  2. I can’t thank you enough for this post. I have just about given up on journalling in both my elementary/middle school/college classes. These links are re-motivating me to try again and make them a real avenue of learning and not of venting.


  3. Meeyauw, you are not alone! This post has generated an amazing number of hits (well, amazing for my limited little blog), which tells me there must be a lot of people out there who want to make the journaling concept work.

  4. I have really mixed feelings about making writing a big part of math class. For a kid who does not like or is not good at writing, math class may be their one safe refuge. Writing is important, even for a mathematician or engineer. But, the entire rest of the school day is already writing-heavy and increasing that just seems like an attempt to “bias” the school day even more toward those with verbal skills and diminish the value of mathematical ability.

    I think that for someone who has a verbal-sequential, left-brained approach to learning, math journaling may indeed help. I think that for someone who is more right-brained, visual-spatial, and who doesn’t need or naturally tend to think about math in terms of words, it could be quite torturous and not at all helpful. I think it would be wise to be sensitive to the strengths and learning styles of individual students when thinking about implementing a math journaling program.

  5. You have a good point, Mathmom. When it is such a struggle to get our students simply to show their steps on homework, the idea of writing a journal does sound like torture. Also, many of the articles on journaling were slanted toward elementary teachers, which often (unfortunately!) means teachers who are not that comfortable with math themselves. In their hands, does journaling become an excuse to replace math content with “How I feel about…” whatever?

    On the other hand, I know how much I have learned by wrestling through problems, and I think a problem-solving journal is a great tool for math students. And to paraphrase Wm. Zinsser, it is only as I put my thoughts into words on paper that I find out whether I actually understand anything at all. This, too, is something I want my students to experience.

    Then there is the question of how to implement this in an already over-full school schedule. We have tried it sporadically, but it is hard to stick to it and be consistent. My daughter has used the note-taking journal approach, summarizing each lesson in her own words, and it did seem to help her retain the material. My son has done a challenge-problem journal, where I forced him to write down the steps of his reasoning, and he didn’t complain too much—but I don’t think he ever saw any point to it all, either.

  6. Journal-writing may not be as highly valued by many secondary educators who feel tremendous pressure to cover the content. However, the ultimate goal for all educators is to help students develop their reasoning and their ability to communicate their thought processes. Whether it’s keeping a journal or requiring students to provide more detailed explanations of their methods, we will only get what we expect from our students. Journal writing invites reflection, something that the older students rarely do. Reflecting on what they understand well and what they don’t, analyzing mistakes and doing self-assessment. These are admirable goals and your resources for teachers are deeply appreciated by your many readers. You take the time and have the expertise to find quality materials. By the way, I appreciate your continued support for my efforts. The investigations I’ve written require extensive ‘writing in math.’ The only way to become better at this is by doing it over time. Keep up the great work!
    Dave Marain

  7. Actually I do believe that writing a coherent grammatically correct paragraph or paper (or a blog for that matter!) requires many of the same skills needed to be successful in mathematics. Writing effectively requires reflection, analysis, planning, developing a draft, editing, etc. Solving a more complex math problem requires reflection, analysis, planning, developing a model, testing, revision, etc. Language skills and symbol sense in math seem to be directly connected. Students who are successful in working through algebraic procedures tend to be strong in grammatical skills in my observation. Students who enjoy writing a proof in geometry (all 3 of them!) tend to be analytical and logical, which is also related to writing effectively. Students who are more right-brained tend to be spatial and more creative in their writing. Those who struggle with writing tend to have difficulty explaining their methods or even showing their work in mathematics. I’m not citing a research study here, just my experiences and observations.
    Encouraging more writing in math class (even if one day a week is devoted to this) seems like a great idea. It’s all about prioritizing and what we value. I’m certainly not saying it is easy to find the time to do this but a little is better than none. Just my musings…

  8. I manage to work writing in, but not in journal form. I see the value, but I also feel time pressure.

    There are times that I ask for work to be turned in with explanations, but I accept not only narrative but also annotation-style (like proof), so I get writing, but not tons in that way.

    I also do some extended problem solving, and ask for write ups. That’s about a page, and while the math can be explained in ‘math,’ the path to the math and the conclusions (or extensions, etc) must be in English. That’s about a page, 2-3 times/yr.

    Early on I have my freshmen write a “math autobiography.” Cute, but one off.

    From time to time I look for compare and contrast between methods. But this can be written in ‘math’ or English, or might consist of good math with annotation rather than full text.

    So, no, I don’t ignore writing, but I only bring small bits in, here and there.

  9. My wife reads this and pointed it out to me. I’m going through school for math for 2ndary education. After reading Rafe Esquith’s “Teach Like Your Hair’s On Fire” I decided that I would include some sort of writing element once I got to the classroom. I’m glad I’m not the only one with the idea of doing it, and I thank you for all the ideas of how to do it. That’s the one part I just hadn’t worked out.

    Thanks & Cheers,


  10. I just found this blog and love it. I teach 8th grade level math and to improve the writing portion for our state exams I started having kids write out their answers. I did find the kids hate doing this. I do have a few that do it willingly, but others just scribble words to get it done. I’d love to find a way to get the kids to write and write without the complaints.

  11. I truly believe that in order to demonstrate understanding in math requires written and oral vocabulary. Students can share their understanding or areas of challenge with journaling and dialog. I teach third grade and my students write their own math word problems depending on the operation or concept we are working with. This activity assists my instruction and checking understanding.

  12. There’s no question that journaling has got to be one of the more powerful pieces in a math teaching/learning strategy. We’re building an on-line math game called Ko’s Journey, and the developers were like, “hey, the implementation of that journal in the way you want to do it is really expensive. There’s got to be a simpler, cheaper implementation.” But as an add-on, ancillary to the program, it sticks out like a sore thumb. Anyway, your article reminded just how important the decision was to include our on-line journal as part of the game. imagineeducation.org

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