Math and Vocabulary

How does this play a role in your classroom? Is vocabulary more important than you anticipated? Attending to mathematical vocabulary has proven to be more important in a mathematics classroom than I anticipated. Facing a school year of challenges with teaching in the middle of pandemic, I found it more difficult to continue my planned research on mathematical literacy. As I struggled, I remembered that part of my research was a focus on mathematical vocabulary. 

In the past, students enrolled in math courses at my school were accustomed to taking vocabulary quizzes at the beginning of each chapter. I observed that this was not an effective use of math vocabulary in the classroom because students would learn the words and definitions just for the quizzes. So it became my goal for students to use the vocabulary in their writing and group discussions, even though they were not eager to be challenged with this task; thus began the journey of utilizing vocabulary in the math classroom. 

In the beginning, my students struggled to use the targeted vocabulary in the classroom. I encouraged them to use the words that related to each chapter as they discussed math problems within their teams and when we were discussing as a whole class. As they spoke, I would ask, “What word can we use that’s important that we have learned from this chapter?” Students also began using the vocabulary in writing explanations in their notes. In the past, I did not analyze vocabulary usage in their notes. But in November, I decided to be more direct. I altered how I assessed by asking them to explain and offer more information. Below is an example:

As I was looking over their explanations, I was impressed with what they came up with. Some students skipped this question altogether, but it was nice to see some students using math terms to help explain their thinking. This has continued and improved as the year has progressed. A month later I looked at other examples of students using vocabulary. I noticed an improvement from my students, as shown in this example: 

Students have also noticed the improvement. Since they have been using the vocabulary for each chapter more consistently, many have mentioned that breaking down word problems has become easier. This is a change from past practice; they typically read the question, came up with an answer, and did not consider an understanding of the vocabulary when deciding whether their response was right or wrong. 

As the rest of the year progresses, I plan to help students continue to grow using math vocabulary. I want this instructional routine to become a natural part of their learning. This, along with the 3-Read Strategy ( for word problems, will help my students learn more mathematics through a literacy lens.

Leave a Reply