We Read. And then We Math.

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:

from worksheetfun.com

from worksheetfun.com

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.


  1. (Typed on a phone…so hopefully this doesn’t look like a huge run-on sentence!)

    While it is true that reading offers out to more contextual understanding practice, from our own daighter’s school experience they also do a large amount of practice with words on a page of similar sounds. For example, before practicing sentences, the class practices and focuses on short e words: get, let, pet, etc. Then they move into short sentences that look like, “He has a pet,” “Get the wet pet,” and more very short Seuss like sentences.

    Once they have mastered the single syllable words surrounded in minimal context, the class then starts in on two syllable words and words with more than 3 letters, using a technique called “blending” (don’t know if this is universal from school to school, but then each curriculum seems to have its own catch phrases). It’s this blending method students focus on time and time again that is so neat, it’s like a basic go-to anytime method to try when you are stuck. (Similar to your telling of blending together the sounds of GETS.) Then there are those tricky, rule breaking words, I’m looking at you silent K, that just unfortunately need to be memorized.

    Now repeat putting blending words into sentences and slowly learning more sound patterns in words (boot vs book practice, then seeing them used in a sentence). It’s this initial introduction to word sounds that builds important tools for later in reading strategy.

    When we tried reading our own amazingly mindnubming Frozen book 2 years ago, our daughter did the same as yours. Picked out in her mind the 2-3 words she knew, then created her own sentence based on previous knowledge of the movie. While I applause her creativity, it really doesn’t help her understand how to read the actual words on the page.

    This is where we need to ask ourselves, what are we trying to accomplish? Knowing the overall story? Well then the movie is enough and our daughters accomplished the goal. Or are we working on using a story setting to build our vocabulary so when we try reading Harry Potter in 2 years (like we are now) BEFORE seeing the movies, we can actually read the words and understand the story they tell?

    Strong foundation of basics, multiple techniques to help move through sentences that gradually become more conplex, to eventually hit the goal of reading a book…hopefully for enjoyment!!

    Now if only we could use DD in Mathmagic Land to help teach math and Frozen to learn fractals. We need cooler stories 🙂

  2. I see the same thing with my daughter – she picks out a few words, and then assumes what the rest of the sentence says. It reminds me of when my students leap to conclusions based on no relevant information. So many thoughts to add on to this, with only a few minutes before my next class starts, so maybe I’ll expand later?

  3. Very interesting post about the struggle to make sense. If we are teaching kids that the main job of spelling is to represent sound, we are doing a disservice, much like teaching kids to memorize algorithms without understanding the relationships they model.

    The main job of spelling is to represent the meaning of a word.

    We are finding amazing sense-making and understanding with a Structured Word Inquiry approach because it taps into our natural curiosity and need for understanding. It’s not a program for purchase, but an approach to understanding, much like I think you are advocating for with math (I’m a big Steve Leinwand fan).


    Check out Pete Bowers’ page: finding kids preK – high school intrigued with learning tools to use to understand how meaning, etymology and sound combine to make very logical rules for spelling.

    Young children love homophones. If we introduce and , and use them in a sentence, young kids understand the difference and thank goodness there are different ways to represent the /ee/ sound so we don’t confuse the two! And what about that ? We certainly know there is a difference in how we use the different meanings, but why the different spellings? Think about the different words you know that have a related meaning: , , , , ! The job of that is to signal the meaning!

    I was just observing a lesson in grade 2 where kids were working on this and they loved it!

    Representing sound is an element of spelling, but not the main job. As the brain is always searching for patterns, it makes sense to teach common digraphs and trigraphs and the sounds they make, so that young readers can make sense of spelling and meaning as they learn to read.

    The hardest part about this approach is all the learning I am having to do as the parent and teacher in order to support all the inquiry my kids (at home and school) are interested in doing! As first time learners who haven’t yet been drilled with false spelling “rules” and their myriad “exceptions”, they are sailing along and having a blast.

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