## Making the Mean Less Mean: Strategic Reading in an SAT or ACT Math Prep Course

“I had no clue what that problem meant.” “I got confused -- what does the mean mean?” “They can do the math, but they can’t understand the word problems.” “That problem was way too wordy, so I skipped it.” When you work with students in an SAT or ACT math prep course, you realize something quickly: you’re suddenly spending a lot of your time as a reading teacher. Solving math problems presents a host of reading pitfalls—from decoding technical jargon to making sense of convoluted prose. A Student’s Perspective Take an SAT or ACT math prep course from a student’s perspective for a moment. You suddenly must accept that “mean,” for example, no longer applies only to how your older brother treats you, but also to the arithmetic average of a set of numbers. You must agree that a statement like “a number squared is equal to 7 less than 35 more than that number” is both a sentence that can be understood and one that you actually care to understand! In short, you are learning a new language. But here’s the rub: Learning math as a language is not necessarily invested with all the fun and purpose of becoming fluent in French, so you can travel to Paris, explore, and enjoy touring the Louvre. Instead, all too often learning this language looks a bit more like training a puppy to sit, shake, and roll over by cueing up discrete behavioral actions with verbal commands. Doing Math Stuff Consider a student learning word-problem translation. It often begins with providing a lexicon or translation key. Students are taught that “of” means “multiply” and “is” means “equals,” etc. However, this form of instruction is largely procedural: follow this recipe, and you’ll produce an equation that will make sense. In the end, students can be trained to respond to these cues and “do math stuff”… but can they make real math meaning? Doing math stuff—executing procedures, using recipes, writing out steps—does not necessarily lead to a meaningful outcome. In fact, we often see students “do math stuff” in an SAT or ACT math prep course but produce some outrageous, illogical conclusions: In a problem that involves a series of discounts applied to the value of a $100 dress, a student concludes that the dress costs more than $100! Yes, the student did math stuff, but that stuff lacked contextual meaning and any truly incisive check back from the student. Plants growing according to regular increments suddenly start shrinking? Athletes running foot races suddenly reach break-the-sound-barrier rates of motion? And a student with 10 equally weighted test scores – consisting of nine 80s and one 100 – enjoys the happy fate of earning a 90 average for the semester? What luck! All these scenarios are so magical as to be kind of funny, expressing some witty adolescent desire to be subversive. But, sadly, they are not. Instead, they reflect a common gap between translating math in a perfunctory manner and [...]