Monday, October 20, 2014

Math Brain vs English Brain

by Julie Homenuik

As an English major and teacher, I hear a lot of negativity about mathematics: “We’re English teachers—we can’t/don’t do math.” “Math can stay over there.” “Ugh. Math.” “You like math?” “I’m good at English, but not math.” To which I say, “Really?” I don’t believe that math and English are as disparate as some people make them out to be. So, with only a slight confirmation bias, I went to the internet to prove my claim that math and English are not opposing ends of a subject-spectrum.

One observation I have made in my teaching career is that students that do very well in English usually also do very well in math. Actually, the grades that students get in English are usually very similar to their math grades, even when they tell me that they are very good in English, but not very good at math (which in itself is an interesting perception). For this blog post, I wanted some objective evidence to validate my observations, and I found one interesting infographic based on SAT statistics that suggests that math and verbal scores on the SAT are comparable. According to the stats presented here, very few students had completely divergent scores in math and language.

The idea that math skills and English skills are divergent seems to relate to the Left Brain/Right Brain myth. People fall back on the right brain/left brain theory as if we simply work with one side of our brain when tackling certain subject areas. And then, to add insult to injury, some decide that math is associated with left brain thinking and language arts with right brain thinking. It’s absurd to think that math does not incorporate creativity or English class does not endorse logical, analytical thinking.  Luckily, the right brain/left brain theory is simply a myth that we simply like to believe because it lets us easily categorize our skills (and sometimes, I think, excuse our perceived weaknesses).

I actually see math and English as having a fair bit in common. Math is a language after all. In both math and writing, we abide by rules, order, structures, and symbols. We must interpret and analyse the information in front of us. We use numbers, rhythms, and patterns in writing just as we look for in mathematics. The skills we use in both subject areas are not divergent, but rather interconnected. For another perspective on this, I direct you to an article by Melanie Carbine, “Math and English: More in Common than Different”. She too notes the connection between math and English language.

Probably the best piece of information I came across is that having a strong English teacher actually makes students stronger in mathematics. Stanford researchers determined that “students of good language arts teachers had higher than expected math scores in subsequent years” (“Stanford research shows long-run benefit of English instruction”). I would think, then, that being strong in English also leads to stronger skills in mathematics—which can also be seen in the SAT stats as well since so few students who scored well in verbal did poorly in math. Therefore, with regards to all my English major math-naysayers who claim they are math-impaired, I say they are actually well-equipped to tackle mathematics (so stop dissing it!)


  1. Very interesting. I am a science teacher and enjoy reading about brain research and how this relates to education and student learning. You have posted some great links and resources. I enjoyed reading them. They have given me much to think about. Thanks.

  2. Okay, so (5+154)/1500000... could you put that in words for us? Perhaps those English teachers would be better at math if they didn't have negative mindsets, haha!

  3. I have met many individuals who claim that they are naturally better at one than the other. They even have proof, a long history of better performances in the subject they think they are better in. I do not completely disagree with them, because there are people who are naturally more gifted in certain areas. However, like you said, this idea can create "perceived weakness" and can sometimes become an excuse. The idea that English and Math are the opposites of each other can be even more dangerous. It makes students think it's impossible to excel at both. I also find many similarities between English and Math. For example, writing an essay is a very logical and analytical process. Just like doing a math proof, it needs to be done step by step, and backed up by evidence.

  4. Isn't vastly divergent performance in language vs math the very diagnoses of "learning disabilities"?

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  6. sorry to prove you wrong but my maths results were a fail every time while i received A+ for english.
    I still struggle with maths to this day.
    I don't believe differences are a learning disability difference isnt a disability, no two people are exactly the same so why would their brains work the same ..
    just because something is different from what some consider "normal" doesnt make it disabled...
    some peoples brains manage academia very well while struggling with hands on tasks other peoples brains struggle with academia whilst excelling at towards hand on
    tasks , our brains don't have to work the same we don't all have to be able to do the same things.

  7. Not true at all. I got 100 for the year in honors math and 90 for the year in regular CP english. WTF

    1. The people in my math class who can't solve the seemingly simplist problems do better than me in English.