Disciplinary Literacy in Mathematics


Mathematics is one of humanity's greatest accomplishments. It enables people to participate fully in society by reasoning logically about complex problems. The primary goal of mathematics learning in U.S. classrooms should be to engage all students in rigorous disciplinary activity in which they attempt to understand concepts by reading, writing, and reasoning about critical questions, problems, and concepts in mathematics.

Disciplinary literacy in mathematics addresses the needs of the secondary mathematics community, taking as its premise that students learn mathematics by actually doing mathematics. That is, students regularly engage in solving cognitively challenging mathematical tasks that require them to think and reason in the same way as mathematicians. The nature of the mathematical activity in which students engage requires them to: explore concepts, make and test conjectures; verify outcomes, predict results, and generalize beyond a given mathematical task. Through work on such activities, students have opportunities to make sense of mathematics by applying and adapting a range of problem solving strategies (e.g., looking for patterns, working backwards, guessing and checking, creating a simpler problem, trying a special case). Via this ongoing process, students develop a toolkit of mathematical concepts and strategies that they can draw on when solving problems.

Mathematical activities utilizing these processes are characterized by lots of talk. Students' learning is enriched as they share their methods for solving problems, respond to questions posed by their peers, make sense of other student's solutions, and ask questions of others to ensure their own understanding.

Disciplinary Literacy spotlights these tools and ways of working, making them public so all students have access and opportunities to use and reflect on the ways in which their learning is advancing.

It is the responsibility of the secondary mathematics teacher to provide students with a range of tools for making sense of mathematics. This includes language, materials (e.g., pattern tiles, calculators), and symbols. The teacher is also responsible for creating the environment in which students are encouraged to use and make connections between multiple representations for a mathematical concept such as: pictures, written symbols, oral language, real-world situations, manipulative models. The teacher, who is more skilled provides students with on-going feedback on their mathematical performance and guidance on how to make progress towards the mathematical goals of the lesson. Scaffolds such as these enable students to participate fully in complex problem solving even before they can solve task independently.