Math vocabulary is an integral piece to understanding math concepts and developing math skills. Often times if a student does not understand a vocabulary term, they are unable to process and make sense of what they are doing, and this will hinder their success. If a student does not fully develop a math concept then that can, and often does, lead to a misconception or lack of understanding of the next skills since math is very much a building-block process. Students must have those foundational building blocks to advance to higher levels.
Strategies to Teach Math Vocabulary
In the elementary world there are several examples of vocabulary terms that students confuse as well as multiple terms for the same concept. This is something that teachers should anticipate and therefore strategically have vocabulary instruction before and as they teach the concepts so students develop a clear understanding while they master those skills.
Addition and Subtraction
One example begins in kindergarten when students are learning how to add and subtract. Students may see or hear the words add, sum, one more, join, and total. All of these terms mean that students are putting objects or numbers together to make more. At this early level it may be confusing to show students all of the terms up front; however, at some point while students are tackling the concept of addition teachers should introduce all of these terms and help students make the connections between them all meaning the same thing.
A strategy to do that is to begin with a number line and discuss with students the concept of ‘one more’ as they move up the number line. This gives them a concrete manipulative that they can actually use as they move their finger to count up. This also gives the teacher the opportunity to discuss ‘one more’ because the students can physically see that they are moving up one space at a time. A great and easy way to make number lines is to draw them on sentence strips and laminate them. This also allows students to use a dry erase marker so that they can write on it if needed. You can use these same strategies for subtraction with the term ‘one less’ as students count down.
Greater Than and Less Than
As students progress in math, a concept that they struggle with is greater than and less than and the symbols that go with them. I often used to hear teachers use the words ‘alligator mouth’ when teaching this concept, but we have learned that is not best practice. Students need to comprehend what greater than and less than really mean, not that the alligator is eating the bigger number. If students rely on that way of thinking, then as they progress to higher levels of math their thinking is going to be dependent upon that way of thinking without true understanding.
A strategy for teaching this is to use place value blocks or place value discs and have students manipulate them on a place value chart so that they see and can compare two values. The teacher can then discuss using the greater than and less than symbols to represent the model when writing the numbers. It is important to note that teachers should specifically discuss and help students understand which symbol to use and why.
When students graduate to multiplication, they often have a difficult time with the word ‘times’ (i.e. 4 x 6). It is essential that teachers explain what this means to students. The best strategy for teaching this vocabulary term is to use an array and discuss with students that the reason we say four times six is that you are counting four six times. Then demonstrate this for them and have them practice, practice, practice! If they do not understand that, they do not understand the concept of multiplication, which is critical for any higher math. It is important to note that students should also be taught to draw the array the correct way so that it matches how the groups are being counted.
General strategies for teaching math vocabulary throughout the year are also a great idea so that students can utilize them if they forget a term or just need a quick reminder. It also provides a record of all the vocabulary they learned throughout the year.
- Having students keep a math vocabulary notebook
- Displaying a math word wall with visuals
- Having students use a graphic organizer so they can come up with multiple representations which helps solidify their understanding
- Continuing to review math vocabulary during whole-group and small-group lessons
- Having students turn in quick video recordings explaining a vocabulary term—this is the best way to gage understanding. A great platform for this is Seesaw because it houses all the videos in one spot, and students and teachers can give feedback to each other.
I hope you have learned a few new tips to help you teach math vocabulary. Most importantly, please remember to check students’ work in their notebooks or on their graphic organizers and videos and provide them with feedback so you can correct any misconceptions. Math vocabulary is essential to student understanding, and we must be diligent as we help them build a strong foundation for their future math learning.