Learning vocabulary for many students is like visiting a foreign country. You can appreciate the diversity and the culture, but don’t really understand what is going on. The longer you stay in the country, the more necessary it becomes to speak the language.

The same is true for math instruction. When students are young they can often get by without speaking the language of math. However, as they grow older, speaking and understanding the language of math becomes a central part of learning.

Here are my 5 favorite tips for teaching math vocabulary to students:

**BIG Words** – Use the correct terms from the very beginning. Essentially, talk the talk while you walk the walk! It is easy to get into the habit of creating cute nicknames or mnemonic devices to help students understand. The downside to that is that our students won’t be able to understand the directions on standardized tests, the terms used by college professors, or be able to read a math textbook.

Create a math word of the day – how many times can they use the new key word in daily conversation? Keep a family tally for fun! One day last week our word of the day was sum. All day I heard my kids saying things such as “the sum of my pretzels and your pretzels is 17” or “the sum of your computer time and my computer time is one hour.”

You can make math flashcards, math journals or even math word walls to keep track of the words you have learned (and have access to them for easy review!).

**Label** – When you introduce a new concept, use the terms to label your work when you model. For example, when my daughter began multiplication we started with:

Factor X Factor = Product

Each time she did a problem, we would label the parts (as we moved along in the unit, we abbreviated the labels but I had her say the full word).

The two most common places we find math terminology are in the directions and in word problems (problem-solving challenges). Take time to highlight and label these terms. Brainstorm lists with students –what keywords might let us know we should add two (or more) numbers together? What types of problems might use division (sharing cookies, making equal parts, etc.)?

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**Connect** – Connect new words to terms/concepts/ideas that students are already familiar with. Studying quadrilaterals? Show students that they have already learned about quarters – four quarters in a dollar, four sides to a quadrilateral. Studying centimeters? Show students that there are 100 cents in a dollar, 100 years in a century, and 100 centimeters in a meter.

**Investigate** – Students need to apply the terms that they see in their math textbook, workbook and videos to the world around them. Studying fractions? Let your student measure out water into various cups. Is ¼ smaller or larger than 1/3? How does the denominator change the value of the fraction? Studying place value? Show your student that the speed limit sign has a 4 in the tens place and a 5 in the ones place. Can they find another sign with a 5 in the ones place?

A newspaper and a highlighter can provide numerous math investigations. Challenge your student to find 5 decimal numbers. Why did the author use a decimal number? Can they find a graph in the newspaper? Young students can be challenged to find the first ten counting numbers (1, 2, 3, etc.).

**Exposure** – We all know that repetition is the key to learning. Students must be exposed to new terms multiple times in multiple formats. Challenge them to write the definition of a new word in their own words. Can they draw a picture to represent the new term? Create a Venn diagram comparing the new term to a term they already know (such as comparing “sums” to “differences”). Have students make flashcards – one card for the term, and another card for the definition. They can play a matching game, go fish (“do you have “a many sided figure?”,” yes I have “polygon”).

These are just a few of my favorite approaches to math vocabulary instruction!

When Michele’s not investigating new words, she can be found blogging about *her journey into preparing her children for the real world just in case they don’t become famous rock stars at http://rockstarthing.blogspot.com.*

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Cara says

I have had great luck teaching math vocabulary using Vocabulary SpellingCity. A whole section of their site is dedicated to math vocabulary divided by grade level and strand. Your kids can play free online games, and you have access to printables and teacher resources. http://www.spellingcity.com/math-vocabulary.html

jimmie says

I don’t agree that it is essential to use the fancy math terms the first time you introduce a concept. Grasping the concept is more important that knowing the correct words. But later, you can certainly add on the jargon. Of course, it’s okay to use the jargon from the beginning, but if it becomes mental overload to learn both terms and a new concept, nix the vocabulary until later.

Also math notebooking is helpful for developing math vocabulary since you need to use the terms to write about math.

Richele says

Math is a language. I have found that teaching a student to understand that language helps the student understand the concept and connect the abstract with the concrete. Math terms make great vocab lessons. I think using the terms as copywork is another great way to include it in your day without adding in another step to overwhelm the student. I agree with Jimmie, that too much vocab along with understanding the concept can be overload. However, I think there is a balance. The terms are essential to understanding math as a whole. Think of learning math as learning another language then instead of blank stares you may get light bulbs going off. lol Again, do this slowly and reinforce it while you teach as in always using the terms when speaking of math. Great article…math vocab is not focused on enough.

Nadene says

For my high-schooler, I made a large concept page and we drew examples and used coloured pens to learn maths vocabulary. After these lessons, I made Maths Mini Office for middle and high students. Having a math mini office handy made review and recognition easy and we soon had most the important vocabulary learnt.

Michele says

Nadene – I have math mini offices for my kids and I agree that they are very easy to use!

I definitely think that balance is the key in any approach to education. With my own children, I try to concentrate on using the correct terms but being aware of how many new terms I introduce in a lesson. We use journaling, math vocabulary flahscards, graphic organizers and many tools to help them see the connections between the new terms and the concepts and skills we are learning.

Janet from Creative Writing says

Vocabulary flashcard games worked for me! The kids got really competitive with themselves, as they worked each week to make their mathematical language automatic.

Bon Crowder says

I’m with Jimmie on this one. Especially since math textbooks will define different terms for different things. You might not see this early on, but it will rear it’s ugly head if you convince your kiddo that there’s only one definition for each word.

For instance, I’ve seen textbooks define a prime number as a positive integer with exactly two factors. And I’ve seen some define it as a positive integer with the factors 1 and itself. Under the first definition, 1 is not a prime. Under the 2nd definition, 1 is a prime.

Of course there’s the example of a square vs. a rectangle, too. You could define a rectangle as a four sided figure with two pair of equal sides that aren’t equal to one another and one right angle (thus a square isn’t a rectangle). Or you can define it to be a four sided figure with four right angles – in which case a square is a rectangle.