Math as Literacy

This may be the only country where there is an ongoing campaign against high school math — in the media, in the overall culture, and even within the profession. I have written a number of posts in response to that state of siege, and I link to them below. Here is the ninth installment in that series.

— Henri


Only a very basic ability to read and write is needed for life in America. One needs to read signs, information on packages, various questionnaires. One needs to sign one’s name, write shopping or to-do lists, fill out forms. Most students can do those things by the time they reach middle school. Still, as they go through high school, an enormous amount of students’ time is dedicated to improving their reading and writing skills. They read increasingly challenging texts. They write longer pieces in response to more and more challenging prompts. 

How do we justify all this work? After all, most students will not be journalists or academics, let alone poets or playwrights. One justification is that it is pretty much impossible to learn anything else without reading and writing. Also, we cannot predict which students will want to pursue careers that do involve a lot of reading and writing. Finally, becoming a better reader and writer brings with it a host of other benefits, and enriches the students’ lives. The ability to read “between the lines” is invaluable to being an informed citizen. (See for example Stanford’s Reading Like a Historian curriculum.) Likewise, the ability to write a convincing letter to the editor or blog post, or a clear report at work. Not to mention access to literature, and the ability to write to relatives and friends.

Not everyone gets there easily. For most students, becoming a good reader and writer takes years of hard work in school — but it’s time well spent. Along the way, they develop a deeper understanding of human nature and the world. They learn perseverance: fully understanding a difficult passage in fiction or nonficition may require repeated readings; getting one’s own writing to be maximally effective may require several revisions. They learn the benefits of discussion (“what do you think the author was saying here?”) and collaboration (“I don’t get what you’re trying to say in the second paragraph.”)

In short: literacy is hard to acquire, but it enriches students in opening up further learning, in its practical applications, and in the development of powerful habits of mind. I want to argue that math is a literacy in the same way: it too is hard to acquire, and though it is not as crucial as reading and writing, it does bring with it many advantages.

Mathematical habits of mind are described for example in the Mathematical Practices enumerated in the Common Core State Standards. Perseverance, abstract reasoning, constructing viable arguments, critiquing the reasoning of others, attending to precision — these are useful in any school context. Mathematical habits of mind have been written about elsewhere, including the NCTM’s Principles and Standards, which include reasoning and communication. For much more on this topic, see this article by Cuoco, Goldenberg, and Mark, and the excellent list in this blog post by Avery Pickford.

Math is also a literacy because it is a necessary ingredient in further learning. Three years of high school math are pretty much a prerequisite to pursuing an education in science, technology, engineering, or statistics / data science. We should not close those doors prematurely. Certainly, one can argue that coding (programming) or drawing (sketching) can enhance learning in other fields, but they are not prerequisites in the same way as reading, writing, and math. As far as I can tell, no other subjects are as foundational as the three R’s.

That said, my defense of literacies in no way implies that I support the deemphasis, defunding, or censoring of other subjects. All students should be exposed to the visual arts, to music, to history, and so on.

I should also make clear I am not arguing for an antiquated view of math and math education. In the media and the popular imagination, and in too many schools, math education is stuck in the middle of the twentieth century: students are expected to learn how to do complicated and boring calculations and algebraic manipulations with pencil and paper — speed and accuracy are prioritized, and understanding is not expected. A certain anti-math camp buys into that framing, and believes that while arithmetic is important, algebra is useless. In my view, we need to move from mindless paper-pencil virtuosity to 21st-century math: numeracy, symbol sense, and appropriate use of electronic tools. This does require high school math.


I fleshed out many of the arguments in today’s post on my blog over the past ten years.

More articles in defense of high school math:

For Algebra A response to “Against Algebra”, an article in The Atlantic.  (2022)

Technology in Math Education Bringing math education into the 21st century. (2022)

My articles on the California Math Framework revision, particularly this one. (2021)

Freakonomics Radio on Math Curriculum My response to a standard anti-math position (2019)

“In Defense of Geometry” (Part IPart II) My objections to the decades-long shrinking of geometry in the high school curriculum (2019). 

In Defense of Algebra 2 A conversation with fellow math teachers (2016)

All of high school math in one year? Part of a discussion with another math teacher (2013)

Somewhat related:

In 2015 I wrote three posts defending the “coding for all” concept by arguing that programming is a new literacy, though it is not as foundational as the three R’s. 


Programming and Math Education 

Coding for All?


I am indebted to Andrea diSessa for some of my ideas about literacies.

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