Applying Lessons from Literacy Success to Drive Success in Mathematics

Blog Post created by teachontarioteam on Jun 15, 2015

IMG_0954.JPGIn this installment of TeachOntario Talks, we are profiling and celebrating the practice of using what we know as evidence-based instruction in literacy to support best practice in numeracy. This Talk features Saint John Paul II Catholic School in Kitchener Ontario.


For the past decade, educators have worked hard to realize improvements in literacy. As a result, Ontario has seen inspiring gains in literacy success rates across the province. How might these lessons learned in literacy be applied to improve instruction and outcomes in numeracy?


Making the Connection between Literacy and Numeracy


Ontario Ministry of Education commissioned a report by the Expert Panel on Literacy called Literacy for Learning that set out a framework promoting a whole-school balanced approach to literacy instruction in the Junior Division.


The report put forward the Four Roles of the Literate Learner as a way “to understand the complex interaction of skills and resources that the literate learner draws upon to make meaning from texts of many types”. Aligned professional learning occurred provincially, in districts, and in schools using these evidence-based practices.


Given declining mathematical results on EQAO for Grades 3 and 6 and a renewed attention on PISA results, there was consensus developed that increasing outcomes in numeracy would be the next step.


The successful approach to literacy instruction led two Ontario educators to conclude that the same gains could be attained if this intentional and focused approach was applied to numeracy instruction.


Instructional Literacy Coordinator, Maria Luisa Lebar, and Learning Forward Director at Large, Mary Fiore, developed an approach to look at mathematics with new eyes by adapting the Ministry's Four Roles of the Literate Learner into the Four Roles of the Numerate Learner.



Literacy Theory Becoming Numeracy Practice


In literacy instruction, strategies like making student thinking visible play an integral role in helping student’s gain rich understanding of the relevant content and skills. These proven strategies are also essential to numeracy instruction.


"If we engage in discourse about using and leveraging literacy practices to make instructional and assessment connections that support numeracy development," espouse Lebar and Fiore, "then students will think more critically about ideas and use reasoning to solve problems and make sense of their world."


Lebar and Fiore believe that teaching numeracy requires a shift in both teacher thinking and teacher practice to help students become "skilled critical thinkers, thoughtful problem solvers and reflective communicators."


Purposeful and intentional teaching that ensures students make connections and see and make sense of relationships ensures students have a deeper understanding of concepts.


Lebar and Fiore provide the following instructional and assessment strategies to support student thinking;


  • Using the gradual release of responsibility framework to support differentiation with a focus on guided practice.
  • Implementing accountable talk strategies to create a learning environment that is safe, inclusive, risk-taking and engaging.
  • Utilizing Assessment For/As Learning strategies (learning goals, success criteria, descriptive feedback, goal setting, self/peer feedback) to respond to student learning needs and make informed instructional decisions.
  • Exploring thinking tools to help make thinking visible such as manipulatives, a variety of texts including math inspired literature, materials that support oral and written expression.
  • Using rich tasks to support integration, cross-curricular connections, higher order thinking and problem solving.
  • Focusing on the components in the Adolescent Literacy Guide – Metacognition, Critical Literacy, Strategy, Questioning, Voice and Identity.
  • Unpacking the Four Roles of the Literate/Numerate Learner to support effective literacy/mathematics instruction and helping students to adopt a critical stance.
  • Examining the thinking routines as presented in Making Thinking Visible by Ron Ritchhart, Mark Church, Karin Morrison.


What Does This Look Like in Classrooms and Schools?



Jessica Weber is a primary teacher at Saint John Paul II Catholic School in Kitchener Ontario, who has adopted Lebar and Fiore's strategies in her classroom.


For Weber, numeracy instruction begins by making the classroom a community where students feel safe and empowered to share their thoughts and perspectives. She holds daily community circles where students can not only articulate their thinking but they also learn how to become effective listeners.


"We share our triumphs and our failures, each equally celebrated knowing that we learn the most through our challenges," says Weber. "Taking the time to talk allows me to better understand my students' unique lived experiences which shape their interactions in the classroom."


Weber applies accountable talk strategies to both her literacy and numeracy instruction.  "In numeracy, this involves solving inquiries with collaborative groups and sharing thinking with classmates," says Weber. "Students learn that it is okay to disagree and question. It is through 'being uncomfortable' that we learn new things." This increases student voice and ownership


IMG_0959.JPGTo make their thinking visible, Weber's Grade 2 class uses D2L and GAFE to create opportunities for reflection and connection. "Students are able to revisit material, share their thinking, and reflect upon their learning," says Weber. Using digital tools promotes home connections and student engagement outside of school.


Another strategy Weber uses is responsive teaching. She has a knack for facilitating meaningful learning while modelling an inquiry stance for her class, and she incorporates effective evidence-based numeracy strategies into "just in time" learning moments. She involves students im making real-world, authentic connections.


For example, while reading a book called "Giants Don't Go Snowboarding" on the carpet with her class, they came to the sentence: "For every step he took [the giant], the kids had to take 3." A student immediately stated, "Wow that seems big. I wonder how big his steps are?"


blogger-image-1865638387.jpg"I knew this was an opportunity to 'go there', to engage in 'just in time' learning based on this passage," says Weber, and she embraced this moment by remembering to stop, think, act and reflect. The following played out.


STOP - The class paused the reading and students shared their ideas and wonderings about what this student said. How big might they be? What do we know about this giant?


THINK - The Grade 2 class worked in groups to think about a strategy to solve this wondering.


ACT- They used a wide variety of tools to help them including carpet squares, counters, rulers, metre sticks. They were engaged and accountable.


REFLECT - The class gathered to share their thinking using a gallery walk approach first then a math circle. Concepts of standard vs non-standard units, estimation, measuring techniques, proportionality, all came out of this learning. The tools they used were diverse, strategies and models varied, but all arrived at 'about' the same solution.


IMG_0961.JPGWeber is not alone in her school when it comes to transferring effective literacy strategies to support student achievement in numeracy. With the instructional leadership of Principal Rodney Eckert, Saint John Paul II promotes a whole-school approach to numeracy instruction.


"With literacy, we are providing kids with realistic rich tasks that get them engaged," says Eckert. "There is no difference in math. The learning needs to be explicit, and purposeful and very specific."


This is Eckert's first year at the school yet he successfully applied this strategy in his previous school and the results were dramatic. Five years ago the Grade 6 EQAO Math scores were at 50%, when he left last year, results had improved to 90%.


A big part of the reason for the success, is that teachers like Weber are working and collaborating  as a school-wide team focused on mathematics. Each staff meeting begins with a math question, teachers go into each other's rooms to give feedback and they deal with problems as a group. Teachers share student work and are moderating their practices. "They are co-learning with each other and a lot of the time it's me learning from them," says Eckert.


“When it comes to math, many kids have difficulty drawing on past learning to solve math problems,” Eckert says. That is why a whole-school approach to numeracy is essential. Breaking down barriers and having conversations about and around numeracy gives students the context of learning.


As with literacy, numeracy success criteria improve students' understanding of what success looks like. This brings clarity to student’s understanding of how to improve the quality of their thinking and their work. "At our school, we have a balanced approach to mathematics, we focus on developing both conceptual and procedural skills, and students are encouraged to solve problems in many different ways.”



This evidence-based balanced approach to mathematics spreads outside the school as well. Eckert is very cognizant of the fact that many parents suffer from math anxiety and this can impact a student’s feelings about math. Eckert makes use of the school newsletter and school council to help alleviate parental math anxiety. To reinforce positive mathematics experiences, students are not sent home with new learning, just the practicing of conceptual and procedural skills learned in class.


When applying literacy strategies to numeracy, Eckert has no doubt kids can succeed. “If we give students the language and give them the modelling, they can do a lot more than we give them credit for.”


Eckert is noticing a huge change in the students when it comes to math. "I'm hearing kids talking about math in the hallways and talking about strategies they are using," says Eckert. "Now kids are more resilient, they have grit, they are building stamina in mathematics and looking for efficiencies."


Applying lessons learned from literacy to numeracy practice across schools and districts will help drive success in mathematics.


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TeachOntario Talks Discussion - Applying Lessons from Literacy Success to Drive Success in Mathematics