If English was taught like math: A nightmare

scott kim
3 min readDec 15, 2022
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Math education has been so bad for so long that we can forget that it could be any other way. A good way to get a fresh perspective on the state of math education is to compare it to the way English is taught.

We think of reading, writing, and arithmetic as the foundational subjects in school. They are certainly what we teach in standardized college admission tests like the SAT. But our standards for arithmetic are far lower than our standards for reading and writing.

Imagine what would happen if reading and writing were taught the way math is taught.

English class would consist of spelling, grammar, and vocabulary — the mechanics of language. You’d spend your days diagramming sentences and conjugating verbs. You’d be drilled on vocabulary words, with only dictionary definitions for context.

Reading books would be something that you might get to do someday in college. And heaven forbid that you should write something original — that’s only for advanced researchers in graduate school. After all, hasn’t everything already been written?

All attempts at introducing reading for pleasure would be resisted, with the excuse that there is no time for reading and writing because there is too much vocabulary to learn.

And the result would be…that most people would hate reading and writing because they are meaningless activities unrelated to their lives. If someone brought up the subject of books at a party, people would announce proudly that they were never good at reading.

Paul Lockhart opens his book A Mathematician’s Lament with a similar nightmare, imagining if music were taught the way math is taught — you’d study notation, but never listen to music, let alone play or compose music, or even know that music can be listened to.

Now I realize that this analogy is imperfect. English instruction isn’t perfect. Many people, if fact, never learn to read and write.

Nonetheless, our cultural attitude toward literacy is strikingly different from our attitude toward math. I’ve found that this comparison highlights just how backward math education is, and suggests better ways that math could be taught. Some fruits of this analogy include:

  • Math ed teaches mechanics and never gets to the math versions of reading and writing.
  • The math equivalent of reading is using math to make art, build projects, and play games.
  • The math equivalent of writing is asking and exploring your own mathematical questions.
  • English ed accommodates varied skill levels through children’s books graded by skill level. Math classes pretend that everyone is at the same level and don’t help kids catch up.
  • Reading is supported as a good thing for everyone at a national policy level.
  • It is socially acceptable to say you were never good at math. Not so with reading.
  • Parents are encouraged to read to their children, but not to do math every day.
  • The best way to learn a language is to live where people speak it. That’s why Seymour Papert created the programming language Logo — to give kids a chance to live in a world that speaks mathematics.

So if you are wondering how the problems of mathematics education can be solved, consider how similar issues are already being solved in language education. It’s potent food for thought.

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scott kim

I’m an innovation coach at gamethinking.io, puzzle designer, ambigram artist, and math education evangelist. Connect with me at http://linkedin.com/in/scottekim