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Spark Interest in Math with Writing Prompts

By Keren Perles

Math and writing always seem to be opposites: you don’t write in math class, and you don’t solve math problems in English class. Think again. More and more math teachers have seen that combining writing and math helps students understand math – and enjoy it!

All Grades – Math Concepts

Students of all grades can benefit from writing out math concepts rather than simply solving problems. Here are some math prompts and activities that can help your students grasp concepts – and can show you where they need extra explanation as well. Some of the prompts are more general, and others relate to specific skills, but they can all be applied to various areas of math.

  • What are the differences between [Math Concept 1] and [Math Concept 2]? What are the similarities between them?
  • How could you use this math concept in your everyday life?
  • Explain how you would solve the following problem: 2x – 7 = 15
  • How can you tell if a number is divisible by 4? Why does this method work?
  • What are two methods you can use to convert a fraction to a decimal? Which method do you prefer, and why?
  • Why is it important to simplify fractions?
  • Write an instruction manual to show someone how to do long division. Number each step.
  • Write a quiz that would be a good test of whether a student understands what we’ve learned today.
  • Describe the graph of y = x^2 in words so that someone in a different room could understand exactly what it looks like.

Lower Grades – Math Fiction

In the lower grades, introducing writing into the math curriculum serves a dual purpose -- it helps students improve their writing skills, and it helps students who enjoy writing to carry that enjoyment over to math. The best way to incorporate writing and math class at the lower grades is by introducing math fiction.

Students write math fiction by taking a math skill they have learned and writing a fiction story that encompasses the skill. If you are teaching addition, for example, a student who enjoys fantasy stories might write the following:

“Two shiny fairies sat on a flower. One was pink, and the other was green. Three more fairies came to sit with them on the flower. Then there were five fairies!”

This may seem simplistic, but it can apply to more difficult skills as well, such as calculating money, fractions, simple algebra, and even probability and statistics. Essentially, students are creating their own word problems. Even though some students may struggle with word problems, creating a word problem can help them understand just how the problem works.

Upper Grades – Metacognition

Although students in the upper grades can benefit from writing math fiction under certain circumstances, they can also use writing to understand the way that they think. Metacognition, or thinking about thinking, is an important concept in education. When children are forced to think about their own thought processes, they clarify concepts for themselves. Reading their writing can also help you understand where your students are coming from, as well as how to help them reach their goals.

Here are several writing activities and prompts you can use in the math classroom to encourage metacognition:

  • Write a math biography – or a history of your feelings about math. Include your first memories about math, any math classes that affected how you feel about math, and your current feelings about math. What were your best and worst experiences with math?
  • Write about the subject you are learning in math class. What do you think about it? Do you find it easy or hard? Do you think it will be useful in the real world?
  • What is the most interesting math skill you have ever learned? Which skill do you think you’ll use the most in life? Why?
  • When you are struggling to do a math problem, how do you feel? What process do you use until you are finally successful?
  • When you get a math problem wrong (and everyone does sometimes), what is your reaction? How would you like to react?
  • Math is fun: agree or disagree? Discuss your answer.
  • What goals do you have that relate to math? How do you hope to reach those goals?
  • How do you study for a math test? Why do you think that your study methods work? How could you improve them?