It shouldn’t come as a surprise to me that students have difficulty writing explanations of their thinking. A recent experience strongly reminded me that this is indeed the case. Here’s what happened:

1. I presented a Problem of the Week to a 5th grade class of students using the Math Forum’s Noticing and Wondering activity from our Understanding the Problem strategy.

2. I read the Wooden Legs scenario to them and asked, “What did you hear?” They responded with a variety of noticings.

3. I read it again and they confirmed some of their noticings and added more. I was pleased with their responses — all was moving along well.

4. We moved to the “What are you wondering” part and although they didn’t generate a question that we might want to switch in for the original problem question, the conversations still added to having all of the students understand what was happening in the problem.

5. Next the class was given the full problem (not just the Scenario) and manipulatives and they worked in groups to solve. They were all actively talking about the math. They were definitely engaged. Annie and I both asked groups Why? How? and Tell Me More? questions and we were encouraged by the students’ responses. We saw students in each group making notes in their math journals.

6. The next step was that we showed some students how to submit to the PoWs online.

It was what I saw later online that reinforced the fact that having students write what they did and why they did it … or … just write their answer and show how that answer works is difficult! I responded to each of the fifth graders who submitted online and when their teacher asked me if I had anything to suggest to him or his students, I told him:

It’s perfectly normal but it seems that none of the students are comprehending what I’ve written to them. It could be because:

* they don’t understand what I’ve written
* they don’t “stick on” my message long enough to read it and so they don’t comprehend (VERY normal!)
* they might read it but by the time they get to their submission they’ve forgotten what I said (VERY normal!)

…. so …. if there is a way that you can have them “talk” about what I’ve written to them, that might help. Here are some possibilities:

* ask a student if they mind having the class look at their solution and my response together — in other words, maybe the class can read everything, think about it and then that one student will submit a revision (with their suggestions)

* have students work in pairs on just one of the student’s submissions — once they read, talk about, and revise one student’s submission then they do the other student’s

* have a student log in, read my message, go to their group, report what I wrote and talk about what it might mean. Once the student has talked about it then they return to revise.

The bottom line is that you have to create steps to get students into the process and then you have to create scaffolding for them so that they have some success to build on. Students who do not have strong literacy skills require a lot of scaffolding and patience but the results are worth it!