Wednesday, November 25, 2015

How To Be A Good Reader, or, How To Get Better At Math

For some of us, we can no more go without reading than we can go without breathing. Famously, I used up all my Hardy Boys before we even got to Europe, when I was 7. We had to find some more books in English. I can't fall asleep without reading, even if it's just those two pages, as the words swim, and the book (or tablet!) falls smack on my face as I fall asleep. I need to read my entire Twitter feed, and all of my flips in Flipboard, at least once a day. I am a subscriber to that dying industry, newspaper delivery. I keep up as much as I can with Batman, and lots of other comics.

I read a lot.

I think i'm a pretty good reader.

Schools do a fantastic job of teaching reading strategies these days. That is, they get students to pay attention to the things that are happening in their mind as they read- visualizing, connecting to our own lives, or to other texts, and making inferences about what is to come. Schools do a great job at making these things that readers do explicit, and they do a pretty good job at providing an interesting variety of texts for kids to read.  They are doing an increasingly better job with digital texts, and needed critical literacy skills for "the now".

The best way to get good at reading is to read. A lot. Schools are very good at promoting literacy outside of schools, and parents of young children all know the importance of taking their kids to the library, and reading to them as much as possible.

This makes sense, right? After all, words are all around us. Being literate in the world is being able to read, the world. Kids, from the time they are in their baby seats, are looking around, trying to decode signs, or ads, to "read the world".

Do we make the same connections with math? How do you become a numerate person? (My outstanding Peel colleagues have written about the 4 roles of the numerate learner here.) I would argue we often don't know how. Either we never figured out how to transfer mathematics out of our classroom experiences, into the world, or our school experiences with math were so dreadful, we can't even imagine the thought.

The Ontario Council of Directors of Education has a new resource to help parents help their children with math. I  saw Lynda Colgan (Queen's) present this resource. In here words, parents know more math than they think, they just call it "common sense".  That squares nicely with my favourite definition of mathematics, from Jordan Ellenberg:  "the extension of common sense by other means.

Common sense to a plumber is using Pythagoras to fit pipes in small spaces. Common sense for me this morning was scrounging change for Callum's lunch order. Common sense to many of us is searching out the best deals on Black Friday. We deal with negative integers every year, around November, as Canadians.

Being numerate in the world is finding numbers in the world, yes, is "reading"the world with math. Many of us watched the Blue Jays make a deep run this October. Did you ever think about what needs to happen for a .299 batting average to go to .300? It's hockey season. What does a .908 save percentage mean to a goalie? What about a 6% shooting rate, if you're Ovechkin? What does it mean that 39.6% of us voted for the Liberal party? What is 50% off, then an additional 20% off that shirt?

Is infinity a number? (My own children want to know). 1+1=2 (That's Alec's favourite "number" right now). Are we there yet? (Not long now!)

Math is everywhere for us to find. To get back to the point of this blog post, the best way to get better at math is to do lots of math. Do your school math, if you are in school. Get curious and watch that Numberphile video about prime number encryption. "Play" with the calculator on your phone. Join a MOOC. (Who knows, you might be among the 6% of all people who actually finish the MOOC.)

If you have small children, let them play with money. Explore the meaning of the equal sign. Count a set of objects. Count again. And again. And again. Explore different ways of making 5. 10. Play with a hundreds square. Look at the cost of toys in flyers. Give them $10 to spend at the dollar store, and see what they do with it. Do math. Everyday. Just do math.

                                                     Baseball: the mathiest of all sports

How much wall space do you need for this t.v.? How much would the tax be?

Read. Read lots. 

Whole lot o' Costco mayonnaise! What's the unit rate?

What percent bigger is Olympic ice, compared to NHL ice? Why does that matter?


  1. What really got me thinking here, Matthew, is that all of these are examples of "real world math." How often though do we forget about the real world when we teach math? I had a mean, median, mode experience when I taught Grade 5 that reminded me why "real world math" is so important. With this, comes thinking skills. Even our youngest students need to be taught to think about math. This is a great reminder of that!


  2. Now the trick is: how can we bring this "math is everywhere" approach into Kindergarten? Or maybe the new play-based program makes that easier?

  3. Matt, all well said but need 'chunk', now chunking for math can't get with chunks for biology.., got to start math games very early (age one +..) in order to get some

  4. Matt, all well said but need 'chunk', now chunking for math can't get with chunks for biology.., got to start math games very early (age one +..) in order to get some