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Why is my child having difficulty with reading math texts?

By Dr. Patricia Deubel

focus troubleParents might say that their children are reading very well and developing a good vocabulary, yet when it comes to reading a math text their children are having comprehension problems.  What parents might not realize is that reading a math text is different from reading texts in other subjects.  Having taught math for 30 years, I know  that students often don’t read the text because they have never learned how.  They jump right in to doing homework problems because they rely greatly on explanations from their teachers for how to do those. 

What parents and their children need to know is that math texts contain a greater number of concepts per sentence and paragraph than in texts for other subjects. Reading is complicated by the use of numeric and non-numeric symbols, specialized vocabulary, graphics which must be understood, page layouts that are different from other texts, and topic sentences that often occur at the end of paragraphs instead of at the beginning. The text is often written above the reading level of the intended learner. Some small words when used in a math problem make a big difference in students' understanding of a problem and how it is solved (Metsisto, 2005). 


Many math terms are rarely used outside of the math classroom. Some words have multiple meanings, or their meaning in math is different than their meaning in Standard English (e.g., borrow, carry, degree, translation, order, property, foil as in “FOIL” method), which is not just an issue for English language learners. 

Consider an ambiguity (numeral vs. number) in statements: Which numeral is larger: 62 or 6? Which number is larger: 62 or 6

So, what can you do?  The following tips gleaned from Cynthia Arem (2010) might be helpful.  When reading math text, encourage your children to:

•        Slow down, as every word counts
•        Reread for mastery
•        Do not skim illustrative material
•        Use a glossary to clarify terms (e.g., Glossary or A Maths Dictionary for Kids)
•        Write as you read—take notes, work out examples, compare.  If a paragraph or part is confusing, write down why.  Think about who can help or what you might do.
•        Use 3 x 5 cards with formulas, key vocabulary, properties, examples, and facts
•        Test yourself, write or say aloud important points
•        Use other math books as reference
•        Read your lesson before class and after class.

Online resources are available, if parents also wish to familiarize themselves with grade-level math vocabulary.  Granite School District in Salt Lake City, Utah, includes math vocabulary organized by grade level (K-7 and secondary including for the Common Core standards, and dual immersion).  East Moline School District 37 in Illinois also includes Common Core mathematics terms by K-8 grade level and high school by math strand at its website.

Much more can be said, but I hope the above helps parents and their children.

About the Author:
Patricia Deubel has a Ph.D. in computing technology in education from Nova Southeastern University and is currently an education consultant and the developer of Computing Technology for Math Excellence at  She has been an educator for over 40 years, and involved with online teaching and learning since 1997.