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!
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.
- 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.
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.
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.
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.
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,