Writing to Learn Math II

[Photo by Andy Hay.]

In addition to all the funny Google searches, I get plenty of normal inquiries about math topics. People come here looking for help with fractions, word problems, and math club activities — no surprise, those — but I would never have predicted the popularity of the search topic “writing in math class.”

Last year, I compiled a variety of math journal resources, but I’ve found many more since then, especially for older (high school and college) students. So if you’re looking for new ways to get your math students writing…

Problems with Math Journals

Several people who commented on last year’s article made excellent points. When we plan to implement math journals, we need to consider these warnings:

  • mathmom wrote: “For a kid who does not like or is not good at writing, math class may be their one safe refuge… 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 had some doubts of my own: “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?”
  • Dave Marain wrote: “Journal-writing may not be as highly valued by many secondary educators who feel tremendous pressure to cover the content…”
  • And jd2718 agreed: “I manage to work writing in, but not in journal form. I see the value, but I also feel time pressure…”

Go back and read the whole discussion. You will find plenty of advice, encouragement, and practical ideas.

And now, on to the new resources…

Math Journaling in General

Complete List of Teacher Resources
Especially for those teaching a writing-intensive college course, but many of the articles would be helpful for any teacher.

Typing Math
Tips from Dr. Math on how to write math using only the standard keyboard character set.

Math Journals For All Ages
Benefits of math journals, 19 writing prompts, and links to more resources. See also: Using Math Errors to Learn.

Mathematical Writing Rubric (pdf)
Rate your writing on a scale of 1-4 in five areas.

Power Writing in Math Class (pdf)
A handout about paragraph construction: The writer gradually adds details to turn a bare-bones paragraph into a decent explanation.

Scaffolding for the Math Writing (and Talking) Process (pdf)
Sample questions for the student problem-solver, to help them figure out an answer and explain it to others.

Talking, Writing, and Mathematical Thinking
Click the “View a Sample Chapter/Article” link to download the first chapter, which discusses how students’ writing can lead to deeper learning.

Writing in Mathematics: Common Objections & FAQs
“Anytime a teacher decides to try something new, s/he is likely to have concerns. Writing in math is no exception…”

Writing Prompts for Math Teachers
Compare and analyze “Math Problems of the Week” from Out In Left Field, paying special attention to the “Extra Credit” questions. How can studying these examples help you improve your own math teaching? [Hat tip: Joanne Jacobs.]

Writing to Develop Understanding (and Other Articles)
“[An] iterative approach that includes initial writing, supportive feedback, and revision is where significant improvement in problem solving takes place.”

How to Get Elementary Students Writing About Math

Aunty Math: Math Challenges for K-5 Learners
Story problem challenges, tips on problem solving, and advice for the parent or teacher.

30 Math Journal Prompts
This is Catholic Mom’s idea list (mentioned last year), organized into cards to print and cut out.

Math Cats: Winners of Past Math Writing Contests
Sample essays on assorted topics by elementary and middle school students.

Math out loud!
Talking through a math problem first helps students write about the solution.

Mathematical Poetry
Links to math poetry by elementary students, to inspire creativity in your kids.

Math Story Diagramming
Young students retell a “living math” story in pictures.

Journal Ideas for Older Students

High School Math Page
Monthly math challenges: Write and submit your solutions.

How to Write a Solution
“You’ve figured out the solution to the problem — fantastic! But you’re not finished. Whether you are writing solutions for a competition, a journal, a message board, or just to show off for your friends, you must master the art of communicating your solution clearly.” From the AoPS articles page.

Problem Solving Island
A wide variety of puzzles, from Thinking Mathematically and other sources, plus problem solving tips and sample student journal entries. Based on Problem Solving and Computing, which can serve as a self-study course.

USA Mathematical Talent Search (USAMTS)
“As opposed to most mathematics competitions, the USAMTS allows students a full month to work out their solutions. Carefully written justifications are required for each problem.”

Writing Assignments in Calculus
Assignments and sample essays for Calculus I-III, by the author of “How to Grade 300 Mathematical Essays and Survive to tell the Tale.” See also: A Guide to Writing in Mathematics Classes, and Assessing Expository Mathematics.

Essays and Research Papers

Writing for a Math Class
Tips and sample assignments for math teachers, and advice for high school or college students writing essays — includes formatting, how to handle references, and the “Fumblerules of Grammar.”

Writing mathematics
The general rules of good writing apply to writing about math. See also the many pdf handouts from assorted college professors:

A Hoard of Resources

For more great links on learning and teaching math:

14 thoughts on “Writing to Learn Math II

  1. The idea of journaling in math class concerns me, and I am sad to see it become more popular. My daughter would have done great with it. She is a good writer. She is now a philosophy major. My son would have hated math class as a result. He is good at math, poor at writing. His writing skills lagged his math skills, and though now he could explain a solution in written words, back in elementary school he could not, and being required to do so might have affected his love for one thing he is really good at. He is now an engineering major and getting straight A’s. I am so very glad he did not have to “write to learn math”. He did not need to write to learn math, and neither did my daughter, who was able to write well.

    Sure, writing is important, and at some point writing about math may become important for a person, depending on ones career choice, but to require it for math is a shame for those young students who are not equally adept at both writing and math or whose writing skills lag behind math skills. Why ruin math for them?

  2. Ann, your concern is similar to mathmom’s comment last year, and I think it is a very important thing for teachers to keep in mind. One of the best things about homeschooling, IMO, is the freedom to adapt our methods to the strengths of each child.

    The age of the child makes a difference, too. I try to teach to an elementary student’s strong areas as much as possible, but by the time my students reach high school, I believe they need to be working hard at their weak areas, too. I wouldn’t want to force a writing-intensive math class on a student who hated writing, but he should definitely learn to write out a solution that others can read and understand.

  3. Don’t get me wrong, I love literacy from the bottom of my soul. But seeing math journals (especially at the elementary level) seems to me that we are sending the message that literacy > numeracy in terms of importance. Untrue. And it has caused quite a problem for the high schools sciences when the students cannot do algebra I with fluency.

    In other words, I second your concern.

  4. As a high school teacher of Mathematics, I can understand the concerns you raise regarding computational skills vs. literacy skills. However, we must never forget that mathematics is the study of logical thinking and problem solving using symbolic language (numbers and operatives).

    In today’s society, communication is the most important skill that we can teach students, the ability to communicate ideas, arguments, and reasoning opens up wonderful opportunities to dialogue. The ability to logically explain the steps needed to solve a computational problem or describe the flaws in someone else’s computational problem is priceless.

    We do a disservice to our students if we only focus on computational skills to the determent of logically explain the thinking behind it.

    To the parent of the student who hated writing and would fail math as a result and learn to hate the subject, that is not what happens. Many times, if not most, the student learns to concisely explain their logically reasoning and discovers that it opens up completely new avenues in mathematics. Quantum Mechanics is a great example of this exciting possibility when one can express their thoughts in both written and oral formats.

  5. The reason so many teachers are concerned about this is because every STATE TEST has open ended questions that require students to use words, numbers and pictures to show their answers. This means that students who are good at computation and memorization will have a more difficult time on this part of the test.

  6. I would like help on how to get and keep 4th, 5th and 6th grade students motivated with learning math.

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