Because my job requires me to teach several different topics to several different grade levels every day, I frequently experience the professional equivalent of being a particle accelerator at CERN; two ideas, tiny and unrelated, swirl around at ever increasing speeds until, somehow, they collide, creating a spray of new ideas and insights.
One of these collisions happened on a recent day when I was teaching my fourth grade gifted class about Egyptian hieroglyphs immediately after a fifth grade math lesson on equations with variables. While explaining to my students that the Egyptians often wrote hieroglyphs out of order, and that some of the symbols represented sounds, some ideas, some were simply modifiers or amplifiers, and some had different interpretations depending on the other symbols around them, I realized that this is exactly how our mathematical symbol system works.
One of the frustrations that I have when teaching math is that students tend to read from left to right, and often when they get to something that hangs them up, they just stop there and try to figure it out. The problem is that beyond the most elementary number sentences (2 + 3 = 5), this approach doesn’t really work. In fact, it is essential for students to learn that sometimes you read from right to left, sometimes you read from the middle out, and sometimes you have to piece different parts together in seemingly random order until the whole equation makes sense.
Just as reading instruction has to be centered around the meaning of the text, not just the surface features, math instruction has to be about problem solving not just computation. But the language of math is a tool for problem solving.
I know I’m not the first to recognize that mathematics is its own language, but I’m now wondering if it might be wise to explicitly teach math the way we teach reading. How far can (or should) we take the parallel? Would we end up with a math equivalent of “phonemic awareness”? What about figurative language? Subtext? What might a math curriculum look like if it were written by reading specialists instead of mathematicians?