Letters versus numbers
By Morgan on January 19th, 2012
Of course, I know now that’s not true; I’ve learned that real studying and discipline, along with good teachers and helpful classroom tools, can turn any student into a speaker of math. But today, I learned something else about math.
Over on the Math Hub, Marilyn Trow, our National Director of Math Intervention, explains how there are actual differences between how our brains respond to numbers and how they respond to letters and language. She says, “There are distinctive differences between the cognitive structures for understanding math and those for learning to read. These differences have implications for intervention with struggling math students.”
Think back to when you first learned to read. An A was an A, a B was a B, and they didn’t change. Letters are immovable. There is no letter before A, and no letter after Z. But math, of course, is different. There are infinite numbers; a 1 isn’t the first number, and between a 1 and a 2 lie too many other numbers to count. As Marilyn writes, “A single letter cannot be broken apart – it’s the most basic component of literacy. A number, on the other hand, can infinitely be broken apart into smaller numbers.”
Another key difference between letters and numbers is that “unlike numbers, stand-alone letters do not hold any meaning. Only when put together do they begin to have purpose.” Letters form words, which form sentences, which form paragraphs and poems and songs and stories. But numbers tell their story in a different way. When we put numbers together — when we pair a 3 with a 4 — we’re simply left with another number. And that number can take on an infinite amount of meanings: “Take the number 7,” Marilyn writes. “Alone, it represents the quantity 7, ● ● ● ● ● ● ●. In the number 75, however, the 7 takes on a completely different meaning, 70. The same is true for the 7 in the fraction 1/7 and in the equation 7x + 3 = 31.”
Phew! Take a moment and let that sit in.
Now, if you’re thinking to yourself, Well, duh. Letters and numbers are different. So what?, this next part is for you. Here’s why we need to understand this, according to Marilyn: “It is important to make the differences between literacy and numeracy clear, particularly for students who struggle with math. Understanding the distinct qualities of numbers will help them unlock the structure of math and make sense of more complex topics.”
Check out Marilyn’s complete post on the Math Hub here. And join Marilyn for a free webinar on January 26 at 2:30pm ET to discuss the differences between literacy and math intervention — find the details here.
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