Math Vocabulary Teaching Ideas

I’ve blogged in the past about how math instruction used to be a huge struggle in my classroom and how I solved that problem by using a guided math workshop approach to teaching. This allowed me to greatly increase student engagement, easily meet the diverse needs of every single student, and best of all, take my students’ understanding of math to a much higher level. 

I LOVED teaching math. 

My kids LOVED learning math. 

They were REALLY good at it.

But, still there was a problem. There were so many times that I was confident my students were proficient in a skill, but they would still get problems incorrect. This was especially problematic with standardized assessments (my least favorite thing in the world of education, btw) when I was not able to clarify anything or answer whatever questions they would’ve asked me in our normal math block.

I clearly remember walking around my room (for hours) proctoring “the big test” and seeing the looks of confusion, frustration, and anxiety on the faces of what was up until that point, my highest performing cohort of 3rd grade mathematicians. This was a group that required a lot of extensions and enrichment because they had demonstrated such strengths in math throughout the year. Yet...

Students who were fluent in division facts froze when asked to “compare the product of the expression on the left with the quotient of the expression on the right using the correct mathematical symbols.” Even simple equations such as “5 + 5” or “6-2” may cause students to second guess themselves when instead of being told to simply add or subtract, they are instead asked to “compute to find the sum” or “calculate the equation to identify the difference.” 

I realized it was not the actual math that was causing them issues. They were struggling because they were not fluent in the language of math. 



Why is Math Vocabulary Important?

In many ways, learning math is like learning a foreign language. In order to be successful in math, students must become fluent with the vocabulary. 

Let’s think about this. Math consists of symbols, numbers, and geometric figures. Those three things alone make understanding math more than just grasping a concept. Now let’s take into account all the words that we may hear in our everyday lives that take on an entirely different meaning when used as “math vocabulary words.” 

Words like...odd, even, product, positive, negative, power, and difference. 

Since these words have very different connotations or meanings in our day to day lives, it is extremely important that we ALWAYS include teaching vocabulary as part of our math instruction. You should also provide consistent opportunities for students to practice the math vocabulary words verbally, in writing, and in the context of math problems. 

The good news is that learning math vocabulary can actually be fun if you incorporate engaging games and activities into your weekly math routines.

The better news is that I have made it super easy for you to do by creating everything you will need to meet the diverse needs of all your students.

How to Teach Math Vocabulary

Identify the vocabulary to be taught. This should be done both for your entire unit of study and for each of your individual lessons.

Preteach vocabulary to decrease cognitive barriers that may prevent children from grasping new content. This should just be an introduction to the words. 

Prior to giving students formal definitions for math vocabulary words, it is important that they have time to explore the concepts on their own. It is very hard to make meaning of a word without actually experiencing it in context. Once they have played with a concept and identified truths, you can provide them with the precise mathematical term for what they have discovered.

Student discussion is crucial to long-term math success. Talking about how a problem was solved, thinking out loud, sharing thoughts and strategies, and bouncing ideas off one another leads to a strengthened understanding. While students are always encouraged to explain things “in their own words,” the ultimate goal should be to have students using precise language that deepens discussions.

Display the words in writing. It is important for students to see how the word is spelled and what it looks like in print. Some teachers opt to display the word on its own, while others choose to display each word with a definition and possibly even a visual image.

Consider having multiple displays of the vocabulary words. In addition to a main math word wall, I suggest having a math vocabulary anchor chart to reference during guided math lessons at your teaching table. You may also want to provide students with portable word wall options. This could be individual vocabulary charts or vocabulary word rings.

Connect the meaning of the words to the students’ learning experiences. Use the vocabulary consistently and repeatedly yourself. Whenever possible, point to the displayed words when speaking about them.

Promote conceptual understanding and problem solving, by including mathematical vocabulary and comprehension skills students need to acquire in order to read and interpret problems successfully into your lessons. As much as I HATE standardized tests, they do not appear to be going away anytime soon. Students who score poorly on tests frequently do so not because they are not proficient with the concepts, but because they have difficulty understanding the questions. By building effective vocabulary instruction into your math curriculum, student achievement is likely to improve on mathematics assessments. 

And now for the fun stuff...

Math Vocabulary Activities

Math Thesaurus: Students make lists of terms with similar meanings that are useful in math. 

Make a Math Alphabet Book: Students make an alphabet of words that are meaningful in math. This can be done as a year-long project or by unit.

Study Math Prefixes: Students identify math prefixes that are part of everyday life, such as tri. 

Focus on Math Verbs: Have your students make a list of words that are useful in solving math problems. They can draw pictures to illustrate the verbs and/ or write synonyms for them.

Math Crosswords: Have students write sentences or create picture clues to create math cross-word puzzles related to the math topic you are teaching. 

Math Doodles: Provide a student with a math vocabulary word and either a paper and pencil or a dry erase board. Without sharing the word with other players, speaking, or writing any words the student must illustrate the word while players guess what it is.


Fun Ways to Teach Math Vocabulary
Pick two words from your math vocabulary word wall. Ask the students to think about the relationship and connections between them. Determining how the words go together will deepen their thinking and understanding of not only those words, but the math concepts as a whole. This can also be done in writing. I like to have my students talk about word relationships, and I also have them complete written versions as well.


Math Word Wall Ideas
Classrooms should be print-rich environments. It is very common for teachers to designate space for a word wall when setting up their classrooms at the start of the new year. I feel it is important to also develop word walls for each of the content areas as well. 

Content-specific word walls make it easier for students to locate vocabulary words when they need to reference them when speaking or writing. In addition to setting aside a dedicated area for math vocabulary words, you should consider clustering words that go together. Instead of just listing words for a math unit, cluster the words that relate to addition together, the words that relate to subtraction together, etc.

You could also use different color cardstock to create visual organization.





Math Vocabulary Frequently Asked Questions
When I am doing professional development, presenting at conferences, or doing online webinars about how to teach Guided MATH Workshop, I am often asked the following questions:

Should I alphabetize the word cards on my word wall?
No. It is far better to cluster the words by concept than to put them in alphabetical order. The reason for having the words displayed is to strengthen student understanding of concepts. That is not done as easily if the words are in ABC order.

Should I display all of the words at once?
No. Like all aspects of setting up your classroom for a new school year, it should be “built” with the students. If you hang up all of your math vocabulary cards before the school year starts, or even at the start of a unit, they will be nothing more than a decoration. The words should be put up as you introduce them and referenced often. 

How do I decide which words to put onto the wall?
As I mentioned before, it is important to identify the words you will need to focus on prior to planning your math unit as well as when writing individual math lesson plans within the unit. You want to make sure you are very thorough in the words you include. For that reason, I do feel the majority of the word selection should be teacher-generated. That is not to say that you shouldn’t add additional words based on student suggestions. 

I have created a FREE list of math vocabulary words for each grade level to get you started. Download them for your grade level below.

I also have complete sets of vocabulary word wall cards ready for you to print and display. They are available three ways.
  1. You can get them on their own.
  2. You can get them in a vocabulary packet based on each concept. This will also provide you with games and activities for strengthening their word knowledge.
  3. You can get them in the yearlong math curriculum bundle for your grade level.


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