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Saturday, January 12, 2013

Do You Speak Math?

It's time for a guest post about the language of math.  Do you speak math?  More importantly, do your students speak math?  

Today’s guest post comes from Toni, an elementary school teacher with a  specialty in differentiated instruction and designing hands-on lessons that incorporate the multiple intelligences.  You can often find Toni writing for, where teachers can buy and sell their original lesson plans, worksheets, and more.  She is married to a middle school math teacher and is a mom to a mystery loving 7 year old sweetie-girl and a quirky little light saber toting 3 year old. 

The Language of Mathematics

The vocabulary of mathematics is a foreign language for students. Words like fraction, division, and multiplication are rarely used outside of the classroom. The more opportunities we give children to talk about math, write about math and listen to math vocabulary in context the more they are empowered to become successful young mathematicians.

Math vocabulary must be taught systematically and with purpose. New math vocabulary should be presented in context. Math themed picture books can be a fun and extremely effective way to introduce new mathematics concepts and vocabulary, especially for your more visual and verbal students.

Often students fail to remember new math vocabulary because they are unable to connect it to their world. Engage your students in a discussion about how a new concept is used in the world around them and create a class poster they can reference. It’s much easier for students to remember what division means when they can connect it to sharing cookies or dividing up a pizza.

All students, and especially younger students, need opportunities to say their new math vocabulary words aloud. Math songs using familiar melodies can be used to help students properly pronounce and remember new math vocabulary. The following example is sung to the tune of “Row, Row, Row your Boat”.
Mode, mode, mode’s the most.
Average is the mean.
Median, median, median, median...always in-between.

Once new math vocabulary has been properly introduced, it can be displayed on a math word wall. When displaying math vocabulary the use of symbols and pictures can be very helpful. For example, writing the vocabulary word perimeter around a picture of a fence or the word area on top of a grid helps students see what the words mean. These visual clues can help jog students’ memories when they forget the meaning of a word. 

Effective math word walls are interactive and should be used to revisit math vocabulary daily. The length of the review is not as important as the consistency. Five to ten minutes a day is sufficient to review math vocabulary. Quick word walls using math games can be a fun way to review. You can use various clue games and have students try to guess the word. Once students are comfortable with new math vocabulary, allow them to make up their own clues. Traditional word wall games can easily be adapted for use with math vocabulary.  Here are just a few math word wall games to get you started.

1.         Mind Reader:  Challenge students to “read your mind” and guess what math vocabulary
word you are thinking of as you give them clues.
2.         Riddle Me Math: I have no vertices and no sides. What am I?
3.         I Spy: I spy a word that is the name for a shape with four sides.
4.         Analogies: Addition is to subtraction as multiplication is to ___________.

Student math journals can also be used to give students the opportunity to take ownership of new math vocabulary.  To effectively 'own' a word, students should be able to restate its meaning in their own words, give practical examples of its use, and construct their own visual representation of the term.  Using the area and perimeter as an example, students may draw a picture of their dream tree house and then discuss how area and perimeter are used when building a tree house.  Students may add to their math journal as they develop a deeper understanding of the word.

The key to helping students develop a firm understanding of math vocabulary is to introduce it in context, connect it to their lives and provide daily opportunities for students to revisit and use it. Consistent use of math vocabulary will help create students who are comfortable with the language of mathematics!

Thanks for the great post, Toni!

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