Math is a language with words and other symbols that also makes sense of the world around us. We consume and know more math than we realize or allow ourselves credit for.

When buying the latest iteration of an iPhone, we may call forth algebra. How much will you pay if you buy an iPhone for $1000 and pay $80 a month for service? Well, that depends on how many months you will use this iteration before moving on to the next iPhone. The number of months is unknown so algebra gives us a symbol to represent this unknown number of months, x (or n or whichever letter you want).

Just as there is formal and informal English (or other language), we can engage algebra formally or informally. You don’t need to write an equation such as y = 1000 + 80x to figure out how much you will pay. You can do this informally, compute 80 times 10 months + 1000 on the calculator. Then try 80 times 12 months etc.

Math provides us a means of organizing and communicating ideas that involve quantities like the total cost for buying an iPhone.

The difficulty in learning math is that it is often taught out of context, like a secret code. In contrast, a major emphasis in reading is comprehension through meaning, such as activating prior knowledge (see below).

In fact, math absolutely can and, in my view, should be taught by activating prior knowledge. My approach is to work from where the student is and move towards the “mathy” way of doing a problem.

Without meaning, students are mindlessly following steps, not closer to making sense of the aspects of the world that involve numbers.

Imagine being asked to explain the climate in Spain and the photo above is the resource you had to use. If you didn’t speak Spanish this would be a challenging task for two reasons. First, you may not know the climate so this is new learning. Second, you don’t know the language used to explain the content – a double whammy!

The photo below shows a resource you are more likely to encounter. The language (if you are an English speaker) is natural for you which leaves you to focus on the content alone. Language is a barrier to learning math.

The photo below is an excerpt from “Why Do Some Children Have Difficulty Learning Mathematics? Looking at Language for Answers” by Joseph E. Morin and David J. Franks. It shows another element to the language barrier in learning math. In this example the term over is used to describe the location of the the white square (bottom frame) but the students understand over as a term used in 3-dimensional space (top frame). The misunderstanding of a single term can throw a student totally off in learning a new math topic.

Below is an excerpt from Malcom Gladwell’s book Outliers. He explains that the languages of Math and English do not get along very well. “Thirty” has to be translated into the concept of 3 TENS. Compare this to Chinese and Math. The problem in Chinese is read as “three-tens-seven” which is already in Math terms. This extra step of translating is often a problem for our students, especially those with special needs.

In teaching math the issue of the language of Math is an additional issue to address separately. I teach students to learn math in their own language (informal English, using manipulatives etc.) and after the concept is learned I show students the “mathy” way of talking about it. This follows the Concrete-Representation-Abstract (CRA) approach to presenting math.