Literacy and Critical Thinking Beyond the Math Classroom

April 24, 2024

If you’ve been following along with our Word Problem series on the Fishtank Blog, you already know why teaching word problems is important, how you can effectively facilitate them in the classroom, and how to ensure content is accessible. Now, we are going to shift our focus to how word problems can help build students’ thinking skills to apply beyond the math classroom. 

Over the past year, you’ve probably heard a lot of talk about the state of reading instruction and literacy best practices. As a math teacher, you may not always think that these discussions apply to your classroom, but word problems are one place where you can deeply engage your students’ literacy skills. Additionally, the critical thinking skills students build while engaged with word problems can help them more effectively assess and use information from a variety of sources, including AI.


What Does Literacy in the Math Classroom Look Like?

When you present a word problem to students, not only do they need to apply their conceptual and procedural math skills to solve, they first need to unpack what the problem is asking them to do. This is where their literacy skills come in; if students cannot understand the language or the context of a problem, they can’t effectively solve it. 

To help ensure students are able to understand the nuance in a word problem, teachers need to model the process of reading and rereading a problem, identifying key information, and how to recognize common context clues. It is also important for teachers to go deeper with these strategies than simply listing out keywords that indicate an operation. For example, the word “of” can indicate multiple different operations—or no operation at all—depending on the specific word problem at hand. If we tell students that “of” always indicates a certain operation, they aren’t actually unpacking the problem with a critical lens; they are simply applying a rule without the deep thinking that is necessary. 

Instead, by teaching students how to make sense of a problem and assess both the information presented and the context, we encourage them to be more holistic in their approach to solving. This process builds their literacy skills in the math classroom as they make connections between the word problems presented and the world around them—and the mathematical understandings they’ve built in a unit. 

Beyond understanding the problem, students’ literacy skills also come into play as they explain their thinking and answer questions in complete sentences. Students need to be able to describe their solving process using mathematical language in writing, and defend their thinking or critique that of others orally. As students engage with more word problems over time, they build the vocabulary needed to do this and, with the support of teacher modeling and feedback, can produce academic language in context.


Adapting for AI in the Math Classroom

As artificial intelligence continues to grow in both influence and presence, teachers may find themselves facing difficult conversations with students; why should students learn how to solve a system of equations or simplify a fraction if a computer could just do it for them?

Tools have been advancing in the math classroom for years, from basic calculators to advanced graphing programs, and while new tools like AI provide students with new avenues through which to interact with math concepts, they can’t replace students’ critical thinking skills—students still need to be able to assess information and recognize when their answers make sense. Word problems give students the skills they need to consider all information in a given context as they work towards a solution instead of just accepting the first answer they see.  

This ability to critically assess an answer sets students up to use AI tools when solving, and not blindly accept information. Instead, through working with word problems, students know to always look at the problem, consider what would be a reasonable answer, and compare their expectations to the information presented by a tool such as AI. Teachers can model this process for students, emphasizing the importance of the conceptual understanding behind a problem as a way to ensure accuracy.


We hope this word problem series on the Fishtank Blog has helped you explore the importance of bringing word problems into your math classroom and how you can do it effectively.

Want to learn more about making your math class engaging, rigorous, and relevant for students? Create your free Fishtank Learning account and never miss a blog post! You’ll also gain access to our free 3rd-8th grade, algebra 1, algebra 2, and geometry curriculum. Dive deeper into Fishtank’s approach to word problems and explore our Word Problem Bank with your Fishtank Plus account.

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