Series: About Early Math

Teachers’ Perspectives on Math and Language Arts Instruction

This opinion piece written by Marilyn Burns for Education Week compares the teaching of math and language arts. While differences exist between math and language arts, one of Burns’ main ideas is that teachers can use similar strategies in teaching both subjects.

Math time is often serious and tense. Rigor and seriousness are essential, but so are the excitement and creativity that teachers generate when teaching language arts.

In both math and language arts, leading class discussions can be invaluable to students. Hearing math ideas explained by their peers can make tough math problems seem more manageable, and letting students “turn-and-talk” to an individual partner can help them work out ideas that might be harder to grasp during a full-class discussion.

An important point to consider is that teaching math and language arts is not an “either-or” situation. As Doug Clements explained in a presentation for Erikson Institute’s International Symposium on Early Math, good early math programs that push students to discuss and explain their thinking have been shown to improve students’ language skills. He puts forward the idea that strong math programs like these encourage children to “dig down” to verbalize abstract math ideas, which improves overall language skills.

Big math ideas are present in many children’s books, too. In one of our Focus on the Lesson videos, a teacher uses Goldilocks and the Three Bears as the premise for a math lesson in which students search the classroom for items that are “just right” for them—in this case, the same size as their hand. Children are more likely to be receptive to learning abstract math ideas when they are presented in a manner that is relevant and familiar to them.