# 5. Teaching ELA and Math Students to Use Their Brains in Similar Ways

In this article in *Kappan*, former ELA teacher Nancy Gardner and math teacher Nicole Smith argue that the Common Core standards form a natural bridge between the seemingly disparate subject areas of English language arts and math. The similarities:

• *Grit* – In both subjects, the new standards emphasize perseverance – sticking with a task, especially a difficult one. In ELA, this manifests itself in getting students to read more-difficult texts. “We want all students to have a productive struggle with texts,” say Gardner and Smith. “Sometimes this means more time devoted to shorter passages” – for example, spending two weeks delving into just two chapters of *Frankenstein*. In math, Common Core ramps up the importance of solving word problems with real-world relevance. “Teaching perseverance depends heavily on the questioning skills of teachers,” say the authors. “Teachers need to understand the *how* and *why* of good questions so they can help students dig deeply and avoid superficial responses.”

• *Supporting claims* – In both ELA and math, Common Core standards involve using claims, reasons, and evidence to back up arguments. In ELA, this means returning again and again to the text for actual evidence, versus the previous emphasis on relating texts to one’s own personal experiences and opinions. In math, students are asked to show the steps of solving a problem or completing a proof. “This means students start to articulate why a given answer must be true – or how a logical conclusion can be reached,” say Gardner and Smith. “In both ELA and math, the focus shifts from finding the *what* answer to *how* to find the best answer and why that answer is best. The conversation may even continue to include whether there is a best answer.”

• *Precision* – In ELA, this includes close attention to grammar and word choice in students’ writing and in the texts they read – for example, why did the author use the word *catastrophe* rather than*problem*? In math, students are called upon to know what level of precision is necessary for a given task – for example, is the best unit of measurement centimeters or millimeters? – and debating with classmates about the most efficient and elegant way to solve a problem. “The importance of precision goes beyond being right,” say the authors, “to a deeper understanding of how right or how effective something is or isn’t.”

• *Structure analysis* – In ELA, why did the author use particular images or rhyme schemes? Why did the writer choose this extended metaphor? Why was the argument constructed this way? In math, students need to learn how to step back and look at the big picture as they analyze mathematical structure, looking for similarities, differences, and patterns. “This helps students make formulas their own and reach past the superficial level of memorizing a formula,” say Gardner and Smith.

• *Using tools strategically* – Common Core standards ask students to use vocabulary and grammar with skill and careful intent. This is essential given the way students are bombarded with words and ideas from the Internet and other sources, and the challenging nature of tasks they will face in the years ahead.

“Math and ELA Meet at the Common Core” by Nancy Gardner and Nicole Smith in *Phi Delta Kappan*, March 2016 (Vol. 97, #6, p. 53-56), www.kappanmagazine.org; Gardner can be reached atngardner@teachingquality.org.