Maria read tonight. And not that “man, can, fan” stuff. She read from a legitimate book. Frozen: Big Snowman, Little Snowman. The plot grabs you right from the get-go. I don’t want to ruin it for those who haven’t read it yet.

We, obviously, have a long way to go. But listening to her sound out and struggle with the words was fascinating. And although I know the English language has its quirks, those rule-breaking words are blaring when you are listening to a 5-year old attempting to sound them out.

Here is an example page (Warning – spoilers):

Maria: I know that word is “on.” And I know the word “horse” has to be on this page.

Me: Good, now what about the first word?

Maria: Some nonsensical mispronunciation of the word “Anna”

Me: Who is the character on this page?

Maria: Oh. Anna. Anna…Mommy what is that funny letter (points to the “g”)?

Megan: That’s guh.

Maria: guh guh guh eh eh eh ta ta ta ssssssss. Gets…On…the horse and chases after Elsa in the snow.

Megan: Try this word after “on”

Meanwhile, I’m thinking there are five e’s on this page representing 3 different sounds. How the heck does anyone ever learn to read!? What a nightmare. Then I realized: context. Every word in this book connects to multiple other words to form sentences and tell a story. A mind-numbing Disney Princess story, but a story nonetheless.

And that’s what we are missing in mathematics. The story. Solving quadratic equations are taught separate from the graph of the quadratic itself and is that process connected to any other representation. Students are taught steps to solving an equation but rarely is there any connection to how that equation was built and what it represents in the first place. Kids are taught to read by using contexts and eventually get to choose their own books to enjoy. Do we ever let kids have “choice math” time?

And so then reading practice looks something like this:

While math practice looks something like this:

Steve Leinwand has spoken at length about this, and he sums it up nicely in this slide from one of his presentations:

In mathematics, we just keep asking the same things: Where did Jane go? Who went to the store? And so we miss opportunities for kids to make connections between ideas by justifying their paths to the solution. And as long as all we are asking is “where did Jane go?” our students won’t be afforded the opportunity to consider the motivation behind Jane’s adventure.