Big Ideas in Literacy
What Does the Research Literature Say About Disciplinary Literacy in Mathematics?
When Shanahan and Shanahan (2008) interviewed a number of professionals in the disciplines, they found the literacy practices within each discipline to be “deeply different.” As they explored the literacy practices of theoretical mathematicians, they learned the following:
During think-alouds, the mathematicians emphasized rereading and close reading as two of their most important strategies. One of the mathematicians explained that, unlike other fields, even “function” words were important. “‘The’ has a very different meaning than ‘a,’” he explained. . . . Math reading requires a precision of meaning, and each word must be understood specifically in service to that particular meaning. In fact, the other mathematician noted that it sometimes took years of rereading for him to completely understand a particular proof. . . . (p. 49)
With regard to vocabulary in particular, one challenge identified by these mathematicians was that many words have general but also very precise mathematical meanings. For instance, these mathematicians explained the following:
A student must know that prime refers to a positive integer not divisible by another positive integer (without a remainder) except by itself and by 1. Prime also means perfect, chief, or of the highest grade, but none of these nonmathematical meanings aids in understanding the mathematical meaning. . . . (p. 52)
Shanahan and Shanahan (2008) also point out that similar complexities apply to the reading of letters and numbers, particularly as these mathematical symbols might have different meanings in different contexts.
The complexities associated with reading mathematical material also have their counterparts in writing, where the use of language, notation, and representations also are expected to be very precise and error-free. But mathematicians engage in other kinds of writing beyond the formal and finished writing that one sees in mathematics publications. This more informal writing might consist of a personal log of questions and insights, written communications with other mathematicians and colleagues, notes or PowerPoint slides for a mathematics presentation, or early drafts of more formal mathematics papers,
Explore: Select one of the following papers to read:
- Deranged Socks [PDF] by Sally Cockburn and Joshua Lesperance, winner of the 2014 Carl B. Allendoerfer Award and published in Mathematics Magazine
- The Mathematics of Doodling [PDF] by Ravi Vakil, winner of the 2014 Chauvenet Prize and published in American Mathematical Monthly
- Euclid Makes the Cut [PDF] by Margaret Symington, winner of the 2013 Trevor Evans Award and published in Math Horizons
Reflect: How does it feel to read portions of a paper of this sort? What must it have taken to write?