4 Strategies to Develop a Strong Math Vocabulary with Upper Elementary Students

Text reads, 4 strategies to develop math vocabulary

We want our students to be strong mathematicians with a conceptual understanding of the mathematical topics we teach. I believe that understanding math vocabulary is an important part of students’ overall math performance since understanding vocabulary helps develop students into mathematical thinkers. Think about how mathematicians accurately describe their process or ask questions. They use academic vocabulary! Think about how questions are written for students to solve. Sometimes the vocabulary itself in a problem will determine whether a student can solve the problem or not (even when the conceptual understanding is there.)

So how do we help students develop a strong mathematical vocabulary? Here are 4 strategies that I use with my students to help them develop, understand, and use mathematical vocabulary.

1. Incorporate math vocabulary in all your math discussions

  • Model using math vocabulary: Be conscientious about using precise math vocabulary when directly teaching, working with groups, or helping individual students. Make sure to use math vocabulary, even if it is from previous chapters or future chapters. This would sound like, “Who found the product for number 10?” instead of “Who has the answer for number 10?”
  • Encourage students to use precise math vocabulary: When students answer or ask questions during math discussions. A fun way to get students to listen for vocabulary is to create a hand signal students show whenever they hear a word, whether by the teacher or students. For example, I have used the peace sign with students (except that we call it a “V” for vocabulary word). Students enjoy listening for the words and feel good when they have students show the vocabulary symbol for them. You can also have students add on-to an answer to make sure precise vocabulary is used. 
  • Go on a math vocabulary hunt in your textbook or worksheets: Ideally, the textbook and practice pages students work with include content-specific vocabulary. Pull out your highlighters and have students highlight all the math-specific vocabulary they can find! 
Text says, "Highlight vocabulary words" with a picture of a subtraction worksheet with math vocabulary highlighted in green.
Before completing an assignment, have students highlight the math vocabulary words, This helps them pay attention to vocabulary and also clarify any words and therefore directions before starting. Looking for this great state math practice (for any state) click here.

2. Give practice specifically related to math vocabulary

  • Play math vocabulary games: Use vocabulary cards for students to flip and describe the term before taking a turn on a board game. Use words and definitions to play memory. You can also create dominos where students match up words and definitions to create a domino train. 
Text reads, "Play board games using math vocabulary cards." The picture shows vocabulary cards for multiplication on a game board.
Incorporate vocabulary into games for added engagement. For example, have students pick a card to use to word in a sentence before being able to roll the dice.
  • Use computer vocabulary games: In addition to physical games, there are many online options. For example, create a Kahoot or Quizizz activity based on vocabulary words. You can create questions that have students matching words and definitions, words and pictures, or fill in the blank sentences using vocabulary words. An online vocabulary game works great for sub plans (as long as your subs have access to a computer and your students are familiar with the online game platform). 
  • Give word work activities: During guided math, I have a vocabulary rotation when students work on word work pages that are similar to what I used to use during ELA word work time. I created 8 different word work pages to go with the main topics I teach in math. Some activities don’t require students to know what the words mean (yet) like ABC order or dividing the words in syllables. Other pages, however, challenge students to use their vocabulary understanding like vocabulary associations or drawing a picture. I can find an activity at any point during the math chapter, and students are regularly exposed to math vocabulary. As a bonus, sometimes I add these pages during ELA time instead of math.
Text reads, "Use math word work to maximize math vocabulary exposure" with a picture of fractions word work activities with making words and alphabetical order
Math word work is a staple in my classroom because it helps students become more familiar with math vocabulary and it is easy to squeeze into the day. Want to grab this fraction word work for free? Just click here.

3. Use a math vocabulary word wall

It is great to have math vocabulary words posted for students to refer back to. I especially like having the words, a picture cue or example and a concise definition. Depending on the size of your wall, you can choose to have all math vocabulary posted or just vocabulary words from the unit you are currently working on. 

Text reads, "Display math vocabulary" with a picture of a graphing vocabulary cards and pictures on a bulletin board.
Vocabulary cards with visuals help students connect the words with meaning. Grab these graphing vocabulary cards and word work activities here.

If you have a math word wall here are a few tips to use it:

  • Model how to use it. If you take the time to set up a word wall, it is important that students know how to use it. Make sure that during instruction, you refer back to the word wall and model to students how to use it. When students are discussing math concepts, refer to the word wall to make sure students use the vocabulary words. 
  • Have students make personal word walls: Students can create their own pictures and definitions in a math notebook or have a handout with vocabulary words, simple pictures, and definitions. For their own word walls, I like to have students draw their own picture models to represent each vocabulary word. 
Text reads, "students record vocabulary words" and shows a math notebook with the word denominator recorded with a picture and sentence.
If students create their own math vocabulary collection, they can go back and reference it later.

4. Assess math vocabulary

We know that often what is assessed is what is taught. In addition to making sure time is being dedicated to vocabulary acquisition, taking time to assess mathematical vocabulary also gives you data to show how well students are mastering the vocabulary. 

  • Use pre and post-assessments for vocabulary. I often include vocabulary questions as part of my pre and post-tests for each math chapter. This is a great way to track students’ growth over the time of the chapter. 
  • Use vocabulary exit slips. Use quick exit slips to frequently check for students’ understanding. This also shows students that mathematical vocabulary is important. 
  • Use electronic quizzes. As noted above, students can also use Kahoot or Quizizz as an informal assessment to see how well students are understanding vocabulary. 
Text reads, "Use vocabulary exit slips" and shows two exit slips for the word product and array that are completed.
Exit slips are a quick and easy way to assess students’ understanding. Use the same card and word for an exit slip or mix up the questions and vocabulary words and give students a chance to share. These vocabulary exit slips work great for any subject area.

Grab some math vocabulary practice for FREE

Make sure to grab the Fractions Vocabulary packet that includes 12 vocabulary cards perfect for word walls or vocabulary games. It also has 8 vocabulary word work activities. Let me know how using it with your class goes! 

Make every teaching moment count, 

Signature that says, "Love, Julie from Llama with Class"

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