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If Reading Were Like Math

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Late Night Mathematics by OakleyOriginals
photo credit: Late Night Mathematics via photopin (license)

“To me, math is numbers: it’s concrete; it’s black-and-white. I don’t understand why you need to bring this conceptual thing into math — at least not at this age.” This was a quote from a parent of a ten-year-old Pennsylvania child from a May 15 article at the NBC Washington (DC) website.

Let’s consider another quote: “Some of you who have small children may have perhaps been put in the embarrassing position of being unable to do your child’s arithmetic homework because of the current revolution in mathematics teaching known as the New Math.”

This did not come from another frustrated parent or a political stump speech railing against the Common Core (or “Satan’s Handiwork” as one Iowa mom put it in the same NBC article). It was in the introduction to a 1965 song titled “New Math” by mathematician and satirist Tom Lehrer. In the song, Lehrer goes on to say, “But in the new approach, as you know, the important thing is to understand what you’re doing, rather than to get the right answer.” Sound familiar?

So why do we keep circling back to the same place? Why on earth does “this conceptual thing” matter in math, even for younger children?

Let’s imagine for just a moment that we were talking about reading instead. This is how the argument might go…

“To me, reading is just letters and words. It’s concrete, it’s black and white. Literally. I don’t understand why you need to bring this comprehension thing into reading — at least not at this age.” Why, I do believe you’re on to something. I therefore propose the following modification to district policy:

21st Century Research-Based Approach to Reading Instruction

Recent research has shown that language ability is in part related to neurological structure and brain development. From this, we now recognize that some children have a greater capacity for understanding language than others. As a result, we will be making the following changes to our reading and language arts instruction in the elementary grades:

  • The focus of reading instruction will now be on decoding and fluency.
  • Students will only receive instruction in comprehension after they have demonstrated mastery of letter naming, phonics, and basic decoding skills.
  • Students who are not language-oriented thinkers will receive mostly instruction emphasizing practice with letters, sounds, and sight words in order to improve their decoding and fluency skills. Once they have attained mastery, they may be able to move up to a higher level of reading to learn about comprehension.
  • In order to reduce frustration and eliminate unreasonable expectations, students who are not capable of comprehension will be taught shortcuts to memorize intended to help them perform adequately on tests and school tasks.
  • No students will be asked to write until they have mastered reading. Writing instruction will therefore begin in fourth grade.

Who’s on board? Anyone?

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Gerald Aungst

Supervisor of Gifted and Elementary Math at School District of Cheltenham Township
Gerald Aungst has more than 20 years experience as a professional educator, specializing in digital technology, mathematics, and gifted education. In his various roles as a classroom teacher, gifted support specialist, administrator, curriculum designer, and professional developer, he has worked to create a rich and vibrant learning culture. He is also passionate about improving learning opportunities for all students. Gerald is a founder of and

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