Knowledge of math vocabulary is an essential component of learning mathematics. In order to communicate math thinking clearly and coherently students need to learn and use appropriate math vocabulary. If we want students to use the language of mathematics precisely it is important that that we model appropriate language in context, both verbally and visually. Resources such as math word walls and math vocabulary books can provide scaffolds to bridge the gap between informal math language and the formal terminology of mathematics as students engage in mathematical explorations and experiences.
Math Word Walls
Math word walls have become a common feature in many classrooms.
However, they are often underutilized and serve as little more than a
decorative display. When used well the word wall can be a powerful tool
that promotes independence, develops math vocabulary, and supports
reading and writing in mathematics. Providing students with an individual Math Vocabulary Book ensures that all students have access to the language they need to develop their math writing skills. If your classroom Math word wall cannot be easily seen from all students' tables consider introducing a Math Vocabulary Book as an added support.
The more you use the word wall, the more your students will do the same. Putting the words up at the beginning of the year and telling students to use it without showing them how is setting your word wall up for failure. Refer to the word wall often so that students get in the habit of doing the same and model how to use it during math writing sessions.
The Word Wall Game: The objective of this game is for students to find words on the word wall using clues given by the teacher, or another student. Clues may consist of a definition or description of a word. Once the clue is completed students may raise their hand to announce that the know where the word is found on the word wall or write the word on their slate. The teacher calls on a student to go to the wall, identify the word using a pointer, and say it. A clue is then given for another word.
Sample clues for a Kindergarten word wall: "I am thinking of a word that..."
Sample clues for a 3rd Grade word wall:"I am thinking of a word that..."
You can use the word wall game when you have a spare few minutes between lessons, or grab a stack of vocabulary cards as you are lining up to walk to or from lunch. You will be pleasantly surprised at how quickly students begin to incorporate these words into their math writing.
Make word wall activities a regular part of the classroom routine
When used as a regular, predictable part of classroom routines word wall activities can play an important role in the development of students' math vocabulary. Setting aside 10 minutes on a regular, ongoing basis for word wall activities will make students more aware of the posted vocabulary and therefore more likely to independently use the wall as a tool during math writing activities. Possible activities include:
Tic-Tac-Toe: Draw a large grid on chart paper and tape a vocabulary card in each square. Divide students into teams. Teams take turns choosing a word and defining it. It the team defines the word correctly, remove the card and place an X or an O in the square. Leave the card on the board if the team answers incorrectly. Continue play until a team has three in a row.
Cloze Activities: Write 2-3 sentences
and leave blank spaces for students to fill in with appropriate math
vocabulary from the word wall. Alternatively, call out a word from the
math wall and have students write a sentence that expresses a
relationship or connection between the term and another math term,
concept, situation, or real-world application. These are both good warm
up activities for the start of a lesson.
Math Doodles: Call out a math word and have the students sketch or doodle a picture of the word for 15-20 seconds, until the next word is called. Students connect each of their doodles with a line, making a simple link. After you’ve called out 5-7 words have students label their doodles without looking at the math word wall. Next, ask students to call out the words in their chain before checking the spelling of their words against the math word wall to make sure they are accurate.
Math Vocabulary Books
Math Vocabulary books should be used alongside the class math word wall to
promote independence and support math writing. Similar to a personal
dictionary, these books allow for differentiation as students can add
the words they need to their own book and have them readily available at
all times. Upper grade students can also add their own definitions of
For more ideas on how to support the development of student's math writing skills see this page.