Focus on Math

Helping children become mathematicians!

Developing Math Vocabulary September 12, 2013

math words pic Mathematics, like many subject areas, has some terms specific to discipline. Additionally, there are words that have uses in everyday language but a specific meaning in math (like “product”, “root”, and “obtuse” just to name a few). Within mathematics itself are some strands that are particularly vocabulary rich, such as geometry and measurement.

There is also the issue in most schools where some portion (in some cases a large portion) of the student population are English Language Learners , ELL, (or termed English as a Second Language students, ESL).

Clearly there is a need for teachers to be proactive regarding helping students learn the various terms that we use regularly in the mathematics classroom.

One easy way to support math vocabulary is a make a Math Words chart that hangs in the classroom, always visible to students. Now, some teachers, particularly in the elementary grades create word walls of general vocabulary terms for young learners, and this is a great idea. Many that I have seen have individual words written on cards and placed alphabetically on the wall. That is a great idea, but I must confess one that for me was not very easy to keep up with on a regular basis.

I am suggesting, instead, that you give math its own sheet so you can add words easily at any time. You need only start with a few words at the beginning of the year and ask your students for suggestions of words to be included. As new words come up in the course of the year, add them. I have often had students in my class prompt me to do just that – they would stop me during our math work and inform me that a certain word needed to be added to the chart. Students used the chart regularly when writing about their thinking. In fact, many times I would see a student sitting, not knowing what to write, scanning the Math Words chart. Finally one term would spark something for him, and the writing could begin.

Having the words posted also reminded us all to use the words in our math discussions. Instead of calling a blue or tan Pattern Block a “diamond”, we would use the correct mathematical term “rhombus”.

The picture of the chart posted here is clearly one used in an primary grade, but the chart is easily adapted to any level. If a phrase is used (such as “ten frames”) one colour is used to show it is a phrase. Otherwise words are written in any colour, multiple words to a line. If possible a small symbol or “cue” is added beside a term to prompt students to remember the meaning of the term.

Screen shot 2011-06-10 at 11.09.25 AMIn particular units of study (such as angles) where there are many new terms, it may be helpful for students to do deeper vocabulary work with the various terms. Using a Frayer Model is helpful for that. (Click here for information about that.)

I hope you will put up a Math Words chart today if you do not already have one up!
Mathematically yours,


One Response to “Developing Math Vocabulary”

  1. […] Remember, “math talk” does not just happen. We have to plan ways to incorporate it into each math lesson. It is a good idea to create math partners so students are responsible to talk to someone about their math thinking. Modeling (letting students hear YOU talk through a demonstration problem) is always a good idea. Responding to students with proper math language/vocabulary (when they have not used such) is helpful. Posting “sentence stems” is a great way to give them an easier start in speaking math. Additionally, try creating a “math words” chart with the students that they can use as an on-going reference in both their speaking and writing (click here to see an example of a “math words” chart.) […]

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