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Integrating Writing into the Mathematics Classroom

Integrating writing into your mathematics classroom can be easy for you and beneficial for your students. Communicating about mathematics helps strengthen student learning, which can build deeper understanding. It provides students an opportunity to organize their thoughts related to the math topic, which helps clarify their thinking.

Student writing can also provide valuable insight for you into their mastery of math concepts. Teachers can use writing assignments as either an informal or formal assessment tool. Writing often reveals gaps in learning and misconceptions, which can help inform your instructional planning and intervention strategy.

First Steps
Writing activities in math class can take several forms, ranging from frequent, quick, and informal activities, to creative writing assignments, to more involved, long term assignments involving research, expository writing, and/or cooperative projects. You can use writing activities in math class to diagnose learning difficulties, assess student mastery of concepts, and to enable students to express their thoughts and feelings about math in reflective or creative ways. Writing also provides an interesting and varied instructional activity for your students.

Guidelines for Assigning Writing
  • Let your students know ahead of time whether or not the writing activity will be evaluated.
  • Adhere to the same expectations for composition, written expression, and usage and mechanics that are expected for traditional English class assignments. Even though it's math class, students should still be expected to utilize grade-level expectations for writing skills. Remember, writing clearly and precisely—an important benefit of writing in math class—should always be expected of your students.
  • Determine the timeframe for the written assignment. This can range from fast and frequent—five minutes, everyday—to week-long assignments, given several times a semester, to longer assignments, given once a semester.
  • You may want to use study groups or cooperative learning groups for some assignments, which can further strengthen the learning.
If your students are struggling with a writing activity, don't hesitate to model desirable strategies for completing the assignment and a sample high quality final product. Present a sample final product for a written assignment to your class. Discuss with your students the thought processes you went through to complete the assignment. Point out the critical elements of your final product and describe how they met the expectations for the assignment.

Ideas for Mathematics Writing Activities
Integrating writing can be quick and easy. Here are several activities that are a snap to incorporate, and can kick-start writing in your math class. As you feel more comfortable, try incorporating a few longer, more involved writing activities.
  • Math Journals. Math journals are a great way to begin class. Display a writing prompt on an overhead projector or white board for your students to read as they enter the classroom. Students should spend five to ten minutes writing on the daily topic. Math journals can also be used to assess background knowledge when beginning a unit, and then used as a means of assessing acquired learning at the end of the unit. Make sure your students know ahead of time if their journal assignment will be read by you and/or evaluated. If so, determine when and how often you will collect and read your students' journals. You will also need to decide if you will devote class time to permit students to share their journal writing—which many love to do!
Math Journal Topics
  • Explain a formula.

  • Write an explanation of a recently-learned concept, as if you were explaining it to a younger sibling or friend.

  • Write about a time that you were really confused in math class. What did you do? Who did you get help from? How did you explain what was confusing you?

  • Write about a time that you helped explain something to a classmate. What was your classmate having difficulty with? How did you help your classmate?

  • Write everything you know about probability. (A great way to start a chapter! Have your students write a similar entry at the end of the chapter, and then have them compare this with their initial entry.)

  • Present a graph from a newspaper or magazine and have your students write a paragraph about the graph.

  • Write as many examples of a ratio that you can think of in five minutes.
  • Creative/Expressive Writing Activities. These activities can be short or long-term assignments. Either way, they'll be quite fun and insightful for your students (and for you).

    • Write a Vocabulary Paragraph—Assign a list of math vocabulary words to your students, then have them write a paragraph that incorporates all of the words on the list. Your students will have fun generating some clever ideas for their paragraphs!

    • Create Missing Numbers Stories—Similar to the vocabulary paragraph activity, have your students write a creative story that incorporates a variety of numbers. After your students have written the paragraph, have them turn their paragraph into a puzzle by writing a new version of the paragraph with blanks where each number appears. Have the students include a table with the numbers used at the top of the paragraph, then exchange paragraphs with partners, and try to place each number in its correct place in the paragraph. This can be a beneficial activity when your students are studying or reviewing rational numbers or the set of real numbers. If desired, you can tell your students that they must include an integer, a fraction, a decimal, a percent, and an irrational number in their story.

    • Word Puzzles—Have your students create a word puzzle with vocabulary words for their current chapter (this can be a great summary activity for the end of a chapter). Students should create word puzzles such as crosswords or word jumbles that require them to write clues. This will ensure that students are applying their knowledge of the math terms, such as definitions and examples.

    • Poetry—Writing and sharing poems is a popular way for middle school and high school students to share ideas and feelings. The creative process involved in writing poetry requires students to apply their understanding of math concepts to the task. Your students may enjoy presenting their poetry in a "Math Poetry Slam" event for other classes. A fun and easy poetry assignment is to have your students write haiku poems for geometric solids. (Haiku, and its three line, five syllable, seven syllable, five syllable format is quite appropriate for a math activity!) Take this haiku, for example:
      Triangular Prism
      Five faces, all flat
      Your straight edges count to nine
      Triangles—a must!

    • Advice Columns—Have students write fictitious advice columns, as one might find in a newspaper, except these are math advice columns. Have your students think of math-related names to use for their advice column, for example "Dear Algy" (short for algorithm), or "Dear Doctor Pi." You can either assign a topic for the advice column, or try having your students think up possible math situations when someone might need advice, such as "I keep getting my cosine confused with my tangent. Please help me straighten this out," or "I can't remember how to find the slope of a line."

    • Research Activities—Can be longer-term assignments, usually lasting a week or two, and can be completed individually, or in small groups. For a research activity, prepare an assignment handout that lists the required elements, how the assignment will be evaluated, and when it is due. You may want to include a rough draft milestone, especially if it is an initial written assignment.

      Research Activities Ideas
      • Biographies of Famous Mathematicians—Newton, Fermi, Pascal, Galileo, Euclid, and of course, Albert Einstein, are just a few of the mathematicians your students can research and write reports about. These reports can be assigned as traditional biographies, or for a more creative assignment, have your students write an obituary as it might appear in a newspaper.

      • Careers That Require the Use of Mathematics—Have small groups research various careers and write a report that they will present to class. Have students include specific examples of mathematics used in the career they research. Possible careers include: architect, chemist, physicist, engineer, statistician, chef, engineer, landscape designer, fashion designer, graphic designer, and football coach. Have students conduct interviews, research college courses required for applicable degrees, read magazine and newspaper articles, and read traditional reference books on each career.

      • Conduct a Survey—The math strands of data, statistics, and probability lend themselves to interesting research and writing activities. One example is to have small groups design and conduct a survey. You may want to begin this activity by sharing a few examples of published surveys with your students and discussing the survey questions. Have your students discuss whether or not the survey questions were clearly written and easy to answer. Your students will need to determine a survey topic, decide on an appropriate sampling technique, write the survey questions, and finally, assure there is no bias in their survey or sample population before conducting their survey. Along with appropriate statistical measures, have your students write a detailed summary of the process they undertook, as well as a summary of their findings. Make sure your students include at least one graph in their summary.

Teacher Tip

If your students are struggling with a writing activity, don't hesitate to model desirable strategies for completing the assignment and a sample high quality final product. Present a sample final product for a written assignment to your class. Discuss with your students the thought processes you went through to complete the assignment. Point out the critical elements of your final product and describe how they met the expectations for the assignment.

This article was contributed by Heidi Janzen, a former classroom teacher and mathematics specialist. She now works as an educational consultant in the areas of professional development, curriculum, standards, and assessment.

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