Saturday, May 5, 2018

Reading Critically in Math Class

One of the biggest problems I have encountered lately in my math classroom is that students simply aren't reading the problem.  Students will even tell me - there are too many words - I'm skipping that one.  These aren't students that have trouble reading.  These students are taught annotation skills in their English classes, but for some reason that skill doesn't transfer over to math class.

The most frustrating part is students that I end up with in my calculus class.  For the most part they are great math students.  We work all year to learn the calculus.  We practice different types of questions.  We review.  We play games to review.  Then we get to practicing multiple choice questions and free response questions from previously given tests.  Students get things wrong because they answer the question about the derivative instead of the actual function, or they find the velocity instead of the acceleration, and on and on.

I wish I had a solution to this problem.  I think that if I came up with a way to force students to critically read the problem, I could probably make a million dollars :)

So, here are some things I am going to try...

1)  While I am working on a question with the class, start by asking them to read the question.  No pencils.  Only reading.

2) Have them pick up their pencil.  Underline, circle, highlight the words that they think are important.  I will do this with them.  I will highlight, underline, circle the words that I think are important.

3) If I am practicing calculus questions with them, I may only give them the stem of the question.  What do they think the question will be?  What topics will this question cover?  What might they ask me about?

4) Have the class only read small chunks of the question at a time.  Write the math from that small chunk.  I have done this with geometry students.  I have them read the question out loud and then I say STOP when I want them to write math from that part of the question.  This seems to help some of them.

Do you have suggestions?  What do you do with your class?  I would love some other strategies to try.


  1. I ask my students to go immediately to the ultimate question. What is the problem wanting to know? Once they know that, I have the brainstorm what they need to know to find the answer. THEN I have them read the problem from the beginning just to read it. Finally, with the question in mind, I have them re-read it to gather those nuggets of knowledge they need to answer the ultimate question. They are simply amazed at how much disinformation is added to the problem.

  2. I usually try to have students restate the question to me. When we give me the deer-in-headlights look after they "read" a word problem, I will walk over and ask them, "Well, what are we solving in this problem?" Students usually go back to the problem, think it through, and summarize the problem for me. During this time, we also identify any unknown vocabulary. Sometimes students point out that they simply don't understand a key word such as altitude or profit. Other times, stating the problem verbally helps them realize what the question is requiring.
    For long, multistep problems, I do something similar as Jennifer. I'll have the students read the question silently to themselves for a few minutes, and then I'll have students turn and talk about what their plan is. Since I teach geometry, I will often also have students illustrate the problem if it's not already illustrated. In the end, however, it just takes a lot of practice and learning from their mistakes.

  3. I love to read Math blog and recover my lacking. It helps makes student resources as well.