"Reading and Math Disabilities: Two Sides of the Same Coin?"

Hello colleagues, Have teachers observed that some learners who have challenges with reading also have difficulty with math? How would you explain this connection? What kind of instructional support do you provide to students in reading? How about for math? Do you intentionally link the two in your teaching?

Christina Samuels takes up this issue in a recent Ed Week blog.

Thanks for letting us know your thoughts.

Cheers, Susan Finn Miller

Moderator, Teaching & Learning CoP


Hi, Susan & Others -

This is an interesting read, and worthwhile discussion to have as a community.   I have limited experience working with English Language Learners who either have a documented learning disability, or who identify/present as having learning challenges in reading and math.  One basic math strategy that works with struggling learners is explicitly teaching that equations and inequalities are like sentences, and each requires specific elements to be complete.  For example, just as a sentence needs a subject, verb and predicate, an equation needs values and either =,  >, <, or another inequality symbol to be complete.   Reviewing these required elements can help learners reflect on their work across content areas, and see structural similarities. 

Another way to approach teaching struggling learners in both domains is using cloze activities, where elements of a sentence or equation are left for learners to 'solve'.  These are used a lot in ESL classes, but can be equally as useful for native speakers who struggle with content.  Cloze exercises, when carefully structured by teachers, can help learners focus on patterns across problem/sentence types, and develop confidence in working towards longer-term goals.

What are some other strategies you use to link math and language arts content for your learners?

Mike Cruse

Disabilities and Equitable Outcomes Moderator


Many people believe that math is a universal language since numbers are the same other languages; however, the context for the use of the numbers can be quite different.  One strategy to help students with understanding language is to journal in a math class.  Math journal has shown to be an effective strategy for students to reflect on the math they are learning while building their reading and writing skills.  I know that math teachers feel there isn't enough time for such an activity but there is more and more research coming out about how writing/reflecting on math helps with building a deeper conceptual knowledge which sticks with learners longer than just procedural skills.

I have been advocating for journal writing in the math classroom for years. While students are resistant at first, they soon find it a viable way to communicate. For the teacher, you can clearly see any misconceptions in their explanations. It also provides the more quiet student a voice in the classroom through journaling. Writing is a higher order thinking process so to write and explain a math process or problem really helps to deepen understanding. It may take some time on the teacher's end but it is time well invested in helping students move forward in their math understanding.

Pam, like you, I have found a great value in journal writing in mathematics.  My favorite journals to read of mathematical metaphors that my students respond to or the ones in which they explain a concept or their understanding to me.  Does anyone use these as a form of assessment?  Just curious.


Brooke, can you give an example of a math metaphor that you might give to students? Sounds intriguing! Thanks. Leecy

Here's mine: Half the stuff you try doesn't work and you have to get to know its quirks, but ... it usually gets you where you need to go.   You wish you could afford something that worked better...

I love all of the connections listed here for reinforcing and integrating reading, writing and math in all instruction. Adding to those ideas, I have always enjoyed having ESL and native-speaking learners create, write, and together solve word problems of their own. The two disciplines (word language and number language) are also very friendly to each other in occupational training that requires learners to read instructions and solve problems in their fields of interest. One "ancient" site that I often use (be ready to find broken links) is http://khake.com/. For lower-level readers, instructors need to rewrite some content or have more advanced students to so. What other ideas are out there? Leecy

In my 5 years at The New Community School I worked with many students who struggled with language -- whether it was representing words or mathematical ideas.   In all areas we grounded new learning in concrete and visual-concrete experiences... we'd use visual-auditory-kinesthetic channels so that as much of brain and body could be engaged in learning.    
I'm really glad those folks are recognizing these issues and rather fervently hope they will be communicating with folks who've been immersed in them for decades :)