University of Oregon

Writing and discourse in mathematics

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In a math environment, writing can help students understand their own thinking, engage deeply with math ideas, gain familiarity with math language, and build connections that are normally hard to facilitate. There are many types of writing for math learning, ranging from informal (free writing, math autobiographies, journals, pen pal exchanges, reading logs) to formal (letters to authors, proofs, formal lecture notes, research papers), with the most common being math journals, creative writing, and expository writing. In addition to encouraging self-reflection, writing may also provide a therapeutic outlet for students grappling with new ideas, increase content knowledge and problem-solving skills, and improve attitudes towards math.  For teachers, reading student work can inform instruction based on recognition of student needs or observed patterns over time. It can also provide valuable opportunities for direct, individualized feedback and teacher-student dialogue. For low-achieving math students, writing can serve as an important alternative form of classroom communication, illustrating their true proficiency levels and providing additional contact with the teacher. Potential problems with introducing writing tasks into math curriculum include the increased number of assignments, time-management difficulties, student writing difficulties, and prohibitive math skill or knowledge deficiencies. Research suggests that benefits from writing in math will not be realized if students are not sufficiently trained/prepared for mathematical writing, and if insufficient opportunities for practice are given.   It is important to note that writing in mathematics has not been proven to affect significant increases in test scores measuring content knowledge, and some researchers refute the idea that writing is helpful for content-focused learning.

Bosse, M., & Faulconer, J. (2008). Learning and Assessing Mathematics through Reading and Writing. School Science and Mathematics, 108(1), 8–19.

Hamdan, M. (2005). Nonlinear learning of linear algebra: Active learning through journal writing. International Journal of Mathematical Education in Science and Technology, 36(6), 607–615.

Lynch, S., & Bolyard, J. J. (2012). Putting mathematical discourse in writing. Mathematics Teaching in the Middle School, 17(8), 486–492. doi:10.5951/mathteacmiddscho.17.8.0486

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