Reading Mathematics: More than Words and Clauses; More than Numbers and Symbols on a Page

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Book Section

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Improving Reading Comprehension of Middle and High School Students



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Reading comprehension research in mathematics has focused primarily on the teaching of generic content area reading strategies (Alvermann D, Moore D, Secondary school reading. In: Barr R, Kamil M, Mosenthal P, Person PD (eds) Handbook of reading research, vol II. Longman, New York, pp 951–983, 1991; Pearson PD, Fielding L, Comprehension instruction. In: Barr R, Kamil M, Mosenthal P, Pearson PD (eds) Handbook of reading research, vol II. Longman, New York, pp 815–860, 1991). In contrast, mathematics education research has focused on ensuring that students understand and can translate the symbols and register of mathematics (Crandall et al., 1989) to and from everyday language to solve problems. Both approaches have been used to support the treatment of mathematics as a fixed body of facts and procedures that are to be acquired by the learner. More recent thinking, however, views school mathematics as a “way of knowing” (National Council of Teachers of Mathematics, Professional standards for teaching mathematics. Author, Reston, 1991, Principles and standards for school mathematics. Author, Reston, 2000; Siegel M, Fonzi J, Read Res Q 30:635, 1995) and incorporates “mathematical texts” as affordances that can support students’ development of mathematical literacy (Draper RJ, Siebert D, Rethinking texts, literacies, and literacy across the curriculum. In: Draper RJ, Broomhead P, Jensen AP, Nokes JD, Siebert D (eds) (Re)Imagining content area literacy instruction. Teachers College Press, New York, pp 20–39, 2010; Siegel M, Fonzi J, Read Res Q 30:632–673, 1995). From our work as an interdisciplinary team, we argue for an interdisciplinary perspective of reading comprehension as applied to reform-oriented mathematics-teaching practices. We begin by reviewing the literature on adolescents’ reading comprehension of mathematics and then present a small study investigating how sixth and seventh grade students approached reading math textbooks. We end by proposing a revised definition of reading comprehension for mathematics grounded in the results of our study. In building on multiple theories we redefine reading comprehension in mathematics using the work of Rosenblatt (The reader, the text, the poem. Southern Illinois University Press, Carbondale, 1978, 1982), Kintsch (1988), and Halliday (Language as a social semiotic. Edward Arnold, London, 1978) to respectively incorporate the transactional, constructivist, and language-dependent nature of thinking and reasoning necessary to create meaning and successfully comprehend mathematical texts.


Mathematics; Textbook comprehension; Opportunity to learn


Science and Mathematics Education



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