Connecting the Literacy and Math Challenge
There are distinctive differences between the cognitive structures for understanding math and those for learning to read. These differences have implications for intervention with struggling math students.
Both literacy and math use symbols – letters and numbers – that children must learn and make sense of in order for them to understand the more complex topics in reading and numeracy. In many ways, these symbols are similar. Both are part of a finite set (26 letters, 10 digits), both are used in conjunction with other symbols (punctuation in reading, operational and relational symbols in math), and both have names that have nothing to do with the symbol’s actual meaning or value. Most importantly, both are building blocks that students learn at the beginning of their education in reading and math.
It’s important for students to understand the distinctions between the contextual usage of numbers and letters in order for them to develop strong number sense. One of the most important big ideas in number is that numbers can be composed and decomposed. A single letter cannot be broken apart – it’s the most basic component of literacy. A number, on the other hand, can infinitely be broken apart into smaller numbers. This is connected to students’ understanding that numbers represent quantity. Understanding that 5 means ● ● ● ● ● will lead to the understanding that 5 is the same as 2 ● ● and 3 ● ● ● put together.
Unlike numbers, stand-alone letters do not hold any meaning. Only when put together do they begin to have purpose. From letters we build words, from words we form sentences, sentences strung together create paragraphs, and so on. On the other hand, when numbers are put together we are always left with another number.
Finally, the many contexts in which we use numbers makes learning mathematics very complex. When we combine letters, we create words. This concept is definitive – the purpose of letters is to create words (and sentences, and paragraphs). Numbers take on many different meanings. Take the number 7. Alone, it represents the quantity 7, ● ● ● ● ● ● ●. In the number 75, however, the 7 takes on a completely different meaning, 70. The same is true for the 7 in the fraction 1/7 and in the equation 7x + 3 = 31.
It is important to make the differences between literacy and numeracy clear, particularly for students who struggle with math. Understanding the distinct qualities of number will help them unlock the structure of math and make sense of more complex topics.