Content Literacy

Translate Technical Symbols to Words

Posted on November 10, 2017

Translate Technical Symbols to Words

Posted on November 10, 2017

Translate Technical Symbols to Words

It's common knowledge that fluency is an essential ingredient in achieving reading comprehension. However, a student who is fluent when reading literature is not necessarily fluent when reading math and other technical texts. The reason behind this is the specialized "language" that permeates these texts.

The Problem

Technical courses--like math, music, business, FACS, Tech Ed, etc.--include their own "language." Students have to translate the various letters, numbers, symbols, and abbreviations into words and phrases without the help of any phonics cues. Below are three math problems (left column) and their "translations."

An electric motor makes 3,000 rpm. How many degrees does it rotate in 1 sec?
An electric motor makes 3,000 revolutions per minute. How many degrees does it rotate in 1 second?
The ratio of men to women in a certain factory is 3:4. There are 228 men. How many workers are there?
The ratio of men to women in a certain factory is 3 to 4. There are 228 men. How many workers are there?
If Jacob was building a coffee table that was 3'x5', what is the perimeter of the table?
If Jacob was building a coffee table that was 3 feet by 5 feet, what is the perimeter of the table?

The Solution

To help students develop automaticity in reading such technical texts, identify a list of common symbols, numbers, letters, and abbreviations relevant to a particular course/subject. Make such a list organized by each subject area students encounter within a school day--math, science, social studies, ELA, P.E., art, music, and all elective courses in middle school and high school.

Compare the various letters, numbers, symbols, and abbreviations across the content areas. Notice that the same symbol appears in multiple subject areas but often with a different translation. For example, the > symbol in math has a different meaning in computer coding and a third meaning in music. The ~ symbol in science has a different meaning in a world language class. In these instances, knowing the translation to words is even more vital for comprehension.

As a staff, discuss how "natural" it is for the classroom teacher to fluently translate the technical symbols of one course. Then consider the added challenge for students who see the same symbol in multiple courses and are expected to juggle numerous translations. This is why teachers must emphasize the unique meanings of these symbols in each subject area.

It's also incumbent on the teacher to routinely model fluent reading of these symbols. As the teacher reads aloud, students need to follow along in the text, so that they see (and hear) how the teacher is seamlessly translating the technical language to fit within context of the sentences.