Debates over how to teach math echo the conflicts over reading instruction, and some issues are similar. But unlike math, reading—in its full sense—draws on everything a person has been able to learn.
“Experts say it’s time for districts to turn their attention to math instruction,” Holly Korbey writes in a recent article for Ed Post, adding that in math, as in reading, student achievement is low, teachers have received inadequate training, and philosophical battles are raging.
A professor of special education—leader of a group called The Science of Math—told Korbey, “Take every single thing that’s been written about the science of reading, and hit ‘find/replace’ for math.”
It’s true there are parallels. The math “wars,” like the so-called reading wars, go back at least to the 1950s, when progressive educators rebelled against “traditionalists” who favored explicit instruction and memorization of facts.
In reading, many educators—and especially faculty members at schools of education—rejected systematic instruction in phonics in favor of a belief that children naturally acquire the ability to read. In math, progressive educators downplayed the need for kids to memorize things like multiplication tables, arguing that it was more important to allow them to discover math concepts for themselves.
Evidence from cognitive science indicates that the progressives—and their intellectual descendants—have been wrong in both areas. Most kids won’t learn to decipher, or decode, words fluently without explicit instruction in foundational reading skills, including phonics. And while math is about more than just memorization, students who haven’t memorized basic math facts will struggle with higher-order math.
The reason has to do with the limited nature of working memory, the aspect of our consciousness where we take in new information and try to make sense of it. Working memory can only juggle four or five new items for about twenty seconds before it starts to get overwhelmed.
If you have relevant information stored in long-term memory—and you can retrieve it fairly effortlessly when you need it—your capacity to understand new information expands. But if, say, you’re trying to solve an unfamiliar kind of math problem through trial and a lot of error—or guessing at words while trying to understand a text—your working memory will get seriously overloaded.
But the similarities between math and what is commonly called “reading” shouldn’t overshadow their fundamental differences. And the parallels between math and reading “wars” shouldn’t obscure the fact that in reading, the conflict has historically overlooked a lot of important turf by focusing overwhelmingly on problems with decoding instruction.
Fundamental differences between reading and math
It’s true that you need automaticity with foundational skills to be successful in reading, as in math. But once you’ve learned to decode written words, your ability to comprehend what you’re reading draws on virtually everything you’ve learned.
If you already know about the topic, you’ll probably find comprehension much easier. Even if the topic is unfamiliar, you’ll still be relying on your ability to understand general academic vocabulary—words like “validity” or “capacity,” which don’t often appear in conversation. Beyond that, your comprehension will depend a lot on your familiarity with the sentence structure of written language—its syntax—which is far more complex than that of spoken language.
With math, you also need to draw on prior knowledge, but the possibilities are a lot more limited. If you’re learning algebra, for example, you’ll need to know how to do things like multiplication and division, and you’ll need vocabulary like “binomial.” These are all concepts that can and should be directly taught.
But we can’t explicitly teach kids everything they need to understand complex text. We can, however, immerse them in specific topics in subjects like history and science, building their academic vocabulary and familiarity with complex syntax through discussions and writing instruction grounded in the content they’re learning. The evidence indicates that if we start doing that early and continue it over the course of their schooling, they’ll gradually acquire the general knowledge they need to be proficient readers.
There’s another important difference between math and reading. With math, students generally need to master foundational skills before they can engage in higher-order operations. But with reading, foundational skills and higher-order processes—let’s call them “comprehension”—should develop simultaneously along two separate paths.
Along one path, children who aren’t yet fluent decoders should be practicing foundational skills on simple texts they can read on their own. At the same time, they should be acquiring academic vocabulary and familiarity with complex syntax by listening to texts being read aloud by a teacher—texts they can’t yet read easily themselves—and participating in class discussions focused on the content they’ve just heard. Once they have knowledge of a topic, they’ll have more capacity in working memory for the demanding tasks of reading and writing—if they read and write about that topic.
Unfortunately, this isn’t the way reading comprehension is generally taught—a fact that is often overlooked in the efforts to bring reading instruction in line with science. Instead, it’s more often approached the way math and decoding should be—as though there were a fixed universe of skills that students can practice to automaticity and then apply generally.
These supposed skills include things like “finding the main idea” and “making inferences,” which children “practice” using books on random topics that are easy for them to read on their own. This kind of practice eats up so much of the school day that there’s often little or no time for knowledge-building subjects like history and science.
Let’s not focus only on math instruction
We should of course address the serious problems with math instruction. But it would be short-sighted for education policymakers and funders turn to math at the expense of other areas of education that also need to be brought in line with cognitive science if we want all children to succeed.
The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, for example, recently increased its investment in math to over a billion dollars, with part of that increase coming from its expenditures on “English language arts,” which is basically another term for “reading.” The page of its website devoted to K–12 education now focuses only on math, and specifically on improving outcomes for historically disadvantaged groups of students, although it’s not clear which side of the “math wars” the foundation will come down on.
I’m not suggesting that the Gates Foundation or other funders return to their previous efforts to boost reading outcomes, which didn’t yield much in the way of results. I also understand the temptation to narrow the focus to math, which—because it’s a more confined sphere of knowledge—seems like an easier nut to crack.
But if we really want to improve education outcomes for all students, we need to stop thinking of the entire universe of learning as consisting of “reading” and math. We need to dive into the deep, rich—albeit sometimes politically rocky—waters of history, science, and the arts, at the elementary level. If we don’t, students with more highly educated parents will continue to acquire academic knowledge while others continue to be denied access to it, and gaps between those two groups will persist or even continue to grow.
The theory behind the Gates juggernaut on math, and perhaps that of other math-focused initiatives, is that it will equip students with the general skills they need to be successful. “Math helps students make sense of the world,” Gates Foundation official Bob Hughes told Ed Week. “It gives them critical thinking and problem-solving skills they can use later as adults.”
But if students haven’t learned much about things like history and geography—as is the case for far too many today—their math skills are unlikely to transfer to other areas. They may be able to solve an algebra problem, but will they be able to read and understand a news story, or vote in a responsible manner? Only a fraction will work in jobs that require higher math. But all of them will be citizens in a democracy—and our common future, as well as their individual trajectories, depends on their getting a well-rounded education.
Editor’s note: This was first published by Forbes.