Anthony: Math vs. Readings
Anthony is good at math, but he has little confidence in his skills. Anthony’s math
teacher also lacks certainty in Anthony’s abilities. They are both wrong.
Anthony is a typical seventh-grader. He goes to school because he is supposed to go. He
would rather hang out with his family or friends. Anthony lives with his parents and is
fourth in a line of five children. He feels a great sense of responsibility to protect his
youngest sister, who attends the same school he attends. His older sister is a freshman at
a high school down the street, the same school from which his two older brothers
A sweet, sensitive child, Anthony has a smile that lights up his face when things are going
well. He is serious when asked to do work, but appears happy and confident when he
know he is on the right track. Anthony appears shy and reserved until he feels
Anthony likes to roller blade in his spare time. He skates with his friends to the local
skate park that is overrun by skateboarders and not really designed for blades, but he and
his friends make the park work for them.
Anthony plays tight end and a few other positions for the Manteca Jaguars, on a city
football league. Next year he plans to play on the junior varsity team, for now he remains
on the youngest team, as he says “I am too small to play J. V. ” At the age of 13, Anthony
has not yet hit the growth spurt that will send him towering over the girls with whom he
At the beginning of our sessions together, Anthony told me that he had difficulty in his
math class. He believed he was doing fine in his other classes, so we agreed that we would
begin by working with math. A copy of the chapter two test provided by his math teacher
gave us a good starting point. We began working through the problems in an effort to see
what kind of trouble Anthony was having. The math seemed simple. I read the
In Exercises 1-3, simplify the expression by combining like terms.
1. 5x + 9z - 7 + 8x -4z
2. 18b + 5a - 9b + 2a
3. 12m + 7 - 5m -2
Anthony quickly figured out the problems, he seemed to have very little trouble. I
suspected the apparent simplicity of the math might explain the ease with which he did
the work. I also thought that the work would get progressively harder. It did, but not for
the reason I expected. We continued, this time I asked him to read the question.
In Exercises 8-9, you travel 320 miles.
8. Write an equation representing the distance traveled when traveling at a rate
of x miles per hour for 8 hours.
9. Solve this equation in Exercise 8 for x.
Anthony stumbled over words that a seventh-grader should know: exercise, solve,
equation, representing. Was it possible that his problem was not math at all but, indeed
that he could not read? Very soon, a pattern began to develop. Anthony would stumble
through reading each set of instructions, but once he understood the question, he was
able to easily figure out the answer. His math skills were by no means perfect, but he was
able to explain several rules when questioned about them. His problem was not in
decoding math combinations like 4x + 3y or ab - 4d, but in decoding letter combinations
such as ou, pre, or qua. He also demonstrated difficulty knowing the difference between
tion and sion or cent and sent. Combining these sounds proved to be equally difficult,
though when he hears the words spoken he can say them with little difficulty.
The research on decoding in reading is extensive, yet inconclusive. Scholars argue the
virtues of both phonics and whole language. The phonics camp declares that whole
language learners will be hampered in later life by an inability to pronounce unfamiliar
words. Phonics detractors contend that poor readers are students for whom phonics was
Phonics is a method of teaching a child to master sounds and letters which together make
up words. The teacher uses drills and basal readers (simple books with repetitive text,
such as ‘See Dick run. See Jane run’), and then shifts to children’s books and
Whole language, sometimes called sight reading, advocates immersing a child in a
variety of literary activities, including reading books and writing stories. Comprehension
takes priority over technical skills such as spelling. A student learns phonics, or
sounding-out, skills in the context of reading children's literature. As an example, in a
word like broom, the child learns to put together the br sound with the oom sound.
Eventually, this practice becomes automatic.
Mr. H., his reading and language arts teacher identified Anthony as a student who might
benefit from tutoring. When his math teacher, Mrs. N., heard some of her students would
be working with tutors, she asked that they be tutored in math also. Mrs. N. tells me
Anthony is very low functioning according to his IEP (Individual Education Plan), her
only explanation is “he is low, really low,” a reference to his ability or perhaps her
perception of his intellect. She adds that it is good that I am working with him, but I
should not expect to get very far. Mrs. N. thinks he would do better if he came to class
more often. She is surprised when I tell her he has missed my class only one time in the
five weeks I have worked with him.
Mr. H. confirms Anthony’s poor attendance and attributes much of his difficulty to his
absence from class, then admits that he is not really sure what is going on because
although Anthony is officially in his class, he spends fifth and sixth period with Mrs. L.
Mrs. L. tells a much different story of our student. Anthony has trouble at home and his
family has moved around more than a young child should, she believes these have
contributed to Anthony dropping behind his peers. She speaks of how his smile lights up
the room and tells me his sisters were the same way. The whole family has a happy spirit
and even though life may be rough they find joy. In young Anthony, Mrs. L. sees a bright
child who has simply gotten lost in his circumstances and with a strong guide she
believes he can work his way up to (or beyond) where he should be.
Solving Anthony’s difficulty with reading will allay several problems. Almost immediately
he will begin to do better in his math class, as the task of reading will no longer hamper
him. In his reading and language arts classes, he will no longer be miserable nor will he
equate the class with failure, as the work will cease to be so difficult for him.
In order to attempt to bring Anthony up to (at least) a seventh-grade reading level, I have
combined several practical methods. These include (1) doing various activities, (2) using
questioning / pausing, (3) working with pronunciation / syllable breakdown / prefix /
suffix / repetition.
First, we work on several different project during each session or change the focus when
Anthony appears bored, tired or frustrated. This includes praising him when he has done
well or seems to be getting an idea or concept. Additionally, Anthony knows that I am
flexible and willing to work on problems with which he is having trouble: if math is more
important to him today, we work on math. I place great value on using games as learning
tools, as I believe, if a kid is having fun while learning he will have a deeper more
meaningful learning experience.
The second method used in working with Anthony is loosely based on the idea of
Reciprocal Teaching. The idea is simple, the teacher asks a lot of questions and the
student is given a reasonable amount of time to come up with an answer. When Anthony
gives an answer, I ask him if he is sure and how does he know. In math exercises, I ask
him to tell me the rule he used to get the answer. When he is confident in his answer, we
move on to the next problem.
Finally, in our reading practice, we use several strategies to attempt to improve on his
reading skills. When we come across words that are difficult to pronounce we break them
down into syllables. We discuss basic rules that can be used to determine the best spot to
break the word. We look for simple cues such as consonant clusters and consonant-
vowel-consonant combinations. We talk about prefixes and suffixes whenever we find
them in our reading.
Combining these strategies and teaching Anthony to use them on his own, will go a long
way toward helping him to improve as a reader and in turn heighten his ability and
strengths in other subjects. I believe that working on a individual basis with a student
like Anthony has many benefits. He appears more confident and comfortable, and his
teacher, Mrs. L, says she has seen improvement in the last month. As a tutor, I have
gained immeasurable skill in planning lessons for teaching reading and comprehension
and insight into the mind of a learner. The need to teach math, a subject far outside my
area of comfort, has pushed me to stay alert and reinforced the need for continued
learning on my part. Lastly, it is my hope that the confidence and skill instilled in
Anthony over the last month and the continued progress we will make in the coming
months will set a tone for a lifetime of learning. Anthony will continue to move forward
despite a few disinterested, jaded teachers.
[Anthony: Math vs.
Readings] was written in
the Fall of 2001, as part of
my teaching credential
Disclaimer: This work is
entirely my own. I bare all
responsibility for the
contents of this paper. All
opinion are my original work
and any quotes or ideas of
other authors are footnoted.