How Poor Reading Skills
Dampen Math Understanding
Q. Is there any
connection between reading disability and math disability?
Yes. If you've ever wondered how a math student can be so
bright and yet do so poorly on standardized tests, it may well be that the
student isn't reading well enough to comprehend the questions. We're not
teaching students how to read logically and systematically. That hurts their
ability to think logically and systematically. And in turn, that hurts their
Why? Because schools today don't teach quick and accurate
decoding of words with phonics-only reading instruction. Instead, they use a
mixture of strategies that can be confusing. It's called the "Whole Language"
method, or "balanced literacy" or "eclectic approach."
The students are taught to guess at words in text using
cues, including what the context of the sentence might suggest. In approaching
an unfamiliar word, the student's eyes are trained to look at the start of the
word, and then the end of the word, and back to the start, and maybe up to the
illustration, and think about what it might mean, and then take a guess.
The student is not taught that reading goes from left to
right, top to bottom, but instead is guided to "discover" - meaning "guess" -- what
text might mean in whatever visual approach to the words the student might take.
This leads to looping and skipping the eyes all over a page of text, scanning
for cues and so forth.
Unfortunately, that habit spills
over onto math schoolwork. If
math teachers want to know why so many students today can't remember to write
their names on their papers, skip whole problems accidentally, struggle with
simple equations that students of yesteryear could do, or miss a lot of
problems because they misread the directions, the reason isn't math
dysfunction. It's reading dysfunction.
there are other reasons kids can't think and concentrate as well today - TV and
video games come to mind - but you can see that schools are a major contributor
if they don't build up children's brains in the early grades with how to
approach an abstract or symbolic challenge, whether it's reading a sentence or
thinking through a math problem.
A lot of students with reading problems go into special
education programs that give them strategies for improving comprehension. But
they don't really work, and especially not for math. The special education
technique of "key word triggers" - spotting what looks like an important word
in a sentence or paragraph and focusing your problem-solving efforts on it, instead
of accurately comprehending the whole paragraph - also has infested math
instruction, to the detriment of math understanding and achievement. With these
strategies, students can only scan and guess. That's hardly the right
foundation for abstract problem-solving and computation.
As the words in schoolwork become more and more complex
in later grade school, and on into the secondary years, reading comprehension
declines. This is because the students don't have the vocabulary, decoding and
word attack skills that come from proper phonics instruction. That's why so
many students today can't work a math problem with a three- or four-part order
of directions; they can't understand the directions in the first place because
they lack the reading comprehension.
Then there are the math textbooks. They're often not very
well-written, which just makes it harder for the students to discern what to
do. Today the focus is on story problems with a reduction on computation. The
books focus more on reasoning skills and problem-solving. Often, just a little
bit of math is wrapped up in a great deal of text: "critical thinking
exercises" or "higher-order thinking skills." The net effect is to trivialize
math and make the math portion of a story problem a minor part of it, instead
of placing it where it belongs: on center stage.
Now, nobody is against reasoning and problem-solving.
It's just that, if you're not teaching kids how to compute answers, they're not
going to have the tools to reason and problem-solve. They're only going to be
able to estimate and guess.
What's the answer? Phonics-only reading instruction from
a great look by a math professor at the impact of poor reading instruction on
math achievement, see "If Johnny Can't Read and Follow Directions, Then He
Can't Do Math," on www.math.umd.edu/users/jnd/subhome/Reading_Instruction.htm