Math Vocabulary

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.

Following are some suggestions to promote effective use of math vocabulary:

Introduce vocabulary to students
Introduce new math vocabulary, as appropriate, during lessons. Post new vocabulary on the word wall as it is introduced, rather than putting it all up at the beginning of a unit. As each word is placed on the word wall, discuss and agree upon a class definition and have a student write it on a blank card to be displayed alongside the word.

Model how to use the word wall
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.

Make the word wall interactive
Make your wall interactive by posting math vocabulary cards in a pocket chart. This allows students to go to the wall, remove a word, use it at their desk, and return it. It also makes is easier for you to dismantle the wall at the end of each unit which will save you time and make it more likely that you will update it regularly.

Less is more
Only put up math vocabulary for the current unit of study, otherwise the wall gets too crowded and becomes more difficult to use. Take down words once a unit is completed and retire them to the math center. Students can use cards from previous units to play the memory game Concentration where they match the word to the definition, Go Fish (“Do you have “a six sided figure?” ”Yes, I have a hexagon.”), or any other games that will provide opportunities to review vocabulary.

Set Expectations 
Let students know early in the year that you expect to see vocabulary from the word wall in students' math writing and that it should be spelled correctly. To begin with you may have to prompt students to make use of this resource: "Try to use at least 3 words from the math word wall in your math writing today". 

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..."

  • describes a shape with 3 sides
  • starts with the letter __ and ends with the letter __
  • names the day of the week that comes before Wednesday

Sample clues for a 3rd Grade word wall: "I am thinking of a word that..."

  • means the opposite of .....
  • means the same as ....
  • describes a shape with __ vertices
  • is a coin with a value of __ cents
  • describes two figures that are the same shape and size

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

My Math Vocabulary Book Download

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 words.

For 2nd Grade Math Vocabulary Resources see here.
For 3rd Grade Math Vocabulary Resources see here.
For 4th Grade Math Vocabulary Resources see here.
For 5th Grade Math Vocabulary Resources see here.

For more ideas on how to support the development of student's math writing skills see this page.

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