Vocabulary support in math is as important as it is in reading

Magnifying glass over the stack of booksBackground on Math Vocabulary Support

Before teaching a lesson to English Language Learners (ELLs), it’s common for teachers to screen vocabulary for troublesome words. Math teachers also need to screen vocabulary before teaching a math lesson, say 2 recent articles on vocabulary support in mathematics.

“Odd number”, “parallel” and “fraction” are some of the technical terms students need to know when they learn math. But less obvious and often more problematic are words such as “rule”, “pattern” and “true” that children may already be using in everyday language but that have a different meaning in math.

“Although teachers are aware of the need to teach the meaning of technical vocabulary words, the importance of teaching subtechnical vocabulary words may be less obvious,” says a recent article in The Reading Teacher. Deep processing of a word and its different meanings is just as important in math as in reading, the researchers write.

Math words can have multiple meanings

In one math class, say the authors of The Reading Teacher article, the teacher and students explored the meaning of the word “true. “After some discussion, the teacher and students decided upon the following definition of the everyday use of the word: “Something that really happened or a fact, the opposite of false.”

The teacher then reminded the students that words often have several meanings. She introduced a second meaning of true: “A word used to describe a number sentence where the value on the left of the equal sign is the same as the value on the right of the equal sign.” The class then brainstormed about examples of number sentences that are true (e.g., 4+3=7, 5 x 4 =2 x 10).

The classroom teacher used a number balance to help students learn the meaning of true in math. Students placed weighted tags on numbered pegs on both sides of the balance device. Untrue number sentences resulted in the balance tipping, indicating that one number sentence had a higher weight and value than the other. With true number sentences, the balance rested parallel to the ground.

An expression that is commonly used in math tests, the article says, is “another way.” In everyday language, “another way” is an alternative to an unattractive method. (e.g. there must be another way to earn money than by cleaning up the attic). In mathematics, however, “another way” means equivalent. (e.g. What is another way to write 6091?) A correct solution (6000 + 90 +1) is neither more attractive nor more efficient but of equal value, the authors write.

Just as with vocabulary support for reading, provide student-friendly definitions rather than dictionary definitions, the authors advise. Make vocabulary instruction rich and lively so that students develop an interest and awareness in words beyond school assignments.

Potential pitfalls of teaching math vocabulary

Two pitfalls of vocabulary instruction in math are that it takes time away for exploration of math concepts and also that in previewing vocabulary, the students will be previewing content, says another article in Teaching Children Mathematics.

When introducing vocabulary, be careful no to tell students what they otherwise would be figuring out on their own during the lesson, advise authors Jennifer Bay-Williams and Stefanie Livers.

The authors offered the following tips for vocabulary support in math:

  • Consider students’ prior knowledge, language skills and interests when evaluating the need for vocabulary support;
  • Change the context of a problem or example to reduce the need for support. For example, an agricultural problem about a farmer’s plan to devote portions of his land to various crops might not be relevant to a group of urban students.
  • Reduce the linguistic load by limiting or simplifying the vocabulary. If the farming context is culturally relevant but the classroom includes ELLs, instead of using acre, plot, field, for example, use “land.”
  • Piggyback on vocabulary being taught for other classes or subjects. If students are studying species in science class, a fraction lesson can be developed to look at populations of species or even fractions of the regions where the species live.
  • Use many of the research-based principles for vocabulary instruction that have been used in supporting reading to provide vocabulary support in math.
  • Analyze high-stakes math tests to identify math vocabulary words that it would benefit children to learn.

Teachers need to be careful in how they introduce vocabulary so that students are not previewing content. For example, before a discussion of perimeter, if the teacher feels it is necessary to present the vocabulary “sides,” “measure” and “long,” the teacher can avoid describing perimeter as “adding the sides” and instead refer to it as “finding the measure.”

Before a lesson on multiplication, presenting the word “multiplication” might not be advisable because students would not have the conceptual foundation to understand what the vocabulary means and there would be no way to expose the students to the word without explaining the meaning, the authors write.

“Designing Vocabulary Instruction in Mathematics,” by Margaret Pierce and L. Melena Fontaine, The Reading Teacher, 2009, Volume 53, Number 3, pps. 239-243.

“Supporting Math Vocabulary Acquisition,” by Jennifer Bay-Williams and Stefanie Livers, Teaching Children Mathematics, November 2009, pps. 238-246.

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