5 Ways to Use Math to Teach Writing


Today’s article is by veteran WriteAtHome writing coach Susan Lyttek. Susan is the author of the recently released thriller, Homeschooling Can Be Murder (A Talbott Family Mystery)


Over the years, I’ve helped many boys, including my own, learn to write. They, more often than girls, complain about grammar being illogical. Why don’t the rules stay the same? For instance, they learn to add ed to create past tense. Then they discover a bazillion exceptions. What genius decided that the past tense of “see” would sound and look like the tool they used to build a doghouse?

To ease their frustration and give them logical tools to build their writing on, I give them math.

1 The equal sign conjunctions. Correlative conjunctions like and and or require that items connected to them have equal weight or value. For instance, you shouldn’t say “I went to the store and seeing potatoes, buy them.” Neither the two verbs, (different tenses) nor the two phrases (prepositional vs. participial) match. You may say, however,  “I went to the store and bought some potatoes.” When both sides of a conjunction are equal, the sentence works.

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2The zero value of appositives and parentheses. Just as zero added to or subtracted from a problem won’t change its worth, neither should an appositive or anything in parentheses. In the example above, I used parentheses twice. Removing their contents may reduce clarity, but does not change the basic meaning, or “value” of the sentence. If something a student has in parentheses cannot be removed, he should delete the marks and include the parenthetical information as part of the sentence.

3More than a few, divide by two. The most common grammar errors in composition are the run-on and the fragment. To avoid the run-on, I have students count action verbs. Verbs are the heaviest component of a sentence and a sentence with more than three will usually be overweight. I also suggest they look for an abundance of and’s or commas. The divide by two rule clues them in to how many sentences to create from their run-on. A run-on with seven verbs, for instance, could normally be divided into three to four simpler sentences.

4No less than without the greater than. The other common error, the fragment, often uses the “less than” portion of the sentence without including a “greater than.” Beginning writers often start a sentence with “while,” “during,” or an “-ing” verb. I tell them to think of these words as the “less than” sign which means they need the greater than (or primary clause) after a comma. For instance, While going to the store is not a sentence, but the “less than” or fragment. Combine it with a “greater than” to complete the idea: While going to the store, I saw a lost dog.

5The equal sign of “to be”. The solo “to be” verb acts as a mirror between the subject and the predicate. “The moon is a ball in the sky,” means “the moon” equals “a ball in the sky.” Because the subject (a noun) can only equal a noun or an adjective, the solo “to be” must be followed by a predicate adjective or predicate nominative.

By using math to explain writing, you give the frustrated student logical tools to build upon while reinforcing grammatical rules. With luck, they just might add up to improved writing!


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About the Author

Brian WaskoBrian is the founder and president of WriteAtHome.com. One of his passions is to teach young people how to write better.View all posts by Brian Wasko

  1. CJ

    *cough* I don’t suppose that this could be applied vise versa, could it? Writing is my element, but math is the bane in life. 😳

    • Brian Wasko
      Brian Wasko07-24-2012

      Since I have the same proclivity, I can’t answer that question. I have heard, however, that asking students to write out in words the steps they take to solve a problem can have excellent results.

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