Math and English: More in Common than Different

I regularly am faced with the ubiquitous look of puzzlement when I explain that I teach middle school math and English. This dismay comes from one of three misconceptions. The first is that middle school students can be challenging. The second presumes that it must be difficult to teach students who don’t want to be in class because some really don’t like math or reading. Mostly, this suggests that math and language arts do not go together. This idea permeates the workforce as well. While I have received several job opportunities because of my math and English certifications, I have also had to pass up opportunities for math-science teachers in STEM programs. Yet, I’ve met plenty of science teachers who balk at the idea of teaching math, so clearly math and science aren’t inherently connected. I maintain that the humanities and the STEM curriculum overlap in the most basic of ways: mathematics is a language and language is essential in the study of mathematics.

The justification for the claim that math and language arts do in fact go together lies in Gardner’s Theory of Multiple Intelligences, which identifies several different learning types including logical-analytical, visual-spatial, verbal-linguistic, kinesthetic, musical, interpersonal and intrapersonal. I admit that math and science is often approached from a Logical-Analytical intelligence more so than a Verbal-Linguistic intelligence. Math has many aspects that are not just analytical or spatial, but also verbal. In fact, math is a language—a language that science and finance and politics use regularly. It has its own lexicon and syntax with symbols borrowed from other systems, just like all languages. In language arts, we build on the alphabet, word chunks, morphemes, grammar, and written formats to look at the meaning of language in depth. In this same pattern, we learn numbers, operations, variables, and more complicated processes so that we can look at more involved mathematics like modular systems, fractals, and chaos.

The difference between Math and English class lies mostly in the way that these subjects tend to be taught. English class often takes an interpersonal, verbal and visual approach, while math classes take an intrapersonal and analytic approach. However, English class can be more structured, focused on bookwork, comprehension questions, vocabulary lists, and writing formats, as well as student-directed with book clubs, author’s chair and discussion. Likewise, math doesn’t have to be all lecture and problems in a book. Math, like any other class, can be centered on problem solving, group work, discussion of multiple strategies, and skills practice through interactive modes. Getting the right answer is as important as being able to explain the process, which of course is the basis for the shift to the common core.

In my preparation to teach math, I became fascinated with the history behind the subject, the stories behind the mathematicians, and the connections between the strategies in approaching math concepts. I found that the word walls, think-pair-share activities, discussion and gallery walks that I used in my language arts class transformed the learning in my math class. In math, students not only need to be able to calculate, but explain their reasoning. In language arts, students apply statistics and graphical analysis in non-fiction reading situations and informational texts. Along with science and historical fiction, there is plenty of math-based fiction and fun books about math to be included in language arts classes.

It’s easy to categorize language, art and the humanities as one school of thought and science, technology and math as another. The former tied together by expression and the latter by analysis and logic.  While math does lay some groundwork for further study in science, engineering, and technology, some science subjects use less math and some humanities subjects use more. Combine persuasive communication skills with a keen sense of logic, probability and statistics, and behold: philosophy, business, and sports! No one intelligence type can be unilaterally associated with either subject to the exclusion of all other approaches. Math and English might seem juxtaposed at first, but interdisciplinary connections abound.

This article is sponsored by Western Governors University, a non-profit, accredited, online university. WGU's Teachers College offers multiple online degree programs for current teachers or those looking to become teachers. To find out more, please visit www.wgu.edu/wisecareers_teachers


Melanie Carbine

Melanie Carbine has traveled and worked throughout North America, Europe and the Pacific Islands.  She currently teaches middle school math and English at Briggs Chaney Middle School in Silver Spring, MD as well as works as an after school math and ESOL tutor in Washington, D.C.  When she's not teaching, she's most likely wrapped up in some art project or traveling.  Contact her on Twitter or Facebook, visit her website, or subscribe to her travel vlogs.  

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