Math

This is Why You Need to Be Teaching Math Vocabulary

Do you teach math vocabulary? If not, I have a story to tell you that may convince you otherwise.

A few years ago I was speaking to the math specialist at my school. She told me that one time she had been in a first grade classroom where students were working on comparing numbers. The teacher had taught them the alligator trick – you know, the alligator always eats the biggest numbers.

Alligator visuals for comparing numbers.

So the math specialist was going around the room talking to students, asking them about what they were learning. Almost every single student she talked to referred to the comparison symbol they were using as “the mouth.”

“7 mouth 5.” “8 mouth 13.”

It’s kind of funny, but also kind of sad. I’m sure the teacher had great intentions, and I personally don’t think there is ANYTHING wrong with using the alligator as a mnemonic device to help students remember which way the symbol goes (I used it every year).

BUT, this story always reminds me of the importance of teaching math vocabulary in addition to, you know, how to actually do math. The alligator trick is a great way to help students out to start, but we MUST be teaching them the correct terminology for the symbols they are using – greater than and less than.

It is SO important that our students cannot only do math, but explain it. Without the proper math vocabulary, our students won’t be able to do that correctly.

Common Vocabulary Errors

Math Vocabulary Cards

Have you ever heard a student say any of the following in your math classroom? Let’s take a look at some common math vocabulary misconceptions:

  1. “I plussed/minused/timesed the numbers together.”
  2. “The numbers go from biggest to smallest.”
  3. “I know it is 3:00 because the little hand is on the 3 and the big hand is on the 12.”

Chances are, you’ve probably said some of these yourself! I know I’m guilty of #2 and #3. All of these statements, though not wrong, do not use the correct math vocabulary, which can in turn affect students’ conceptual understanding.

  1. In the first example, the student is identifying the signs used, not the operation. This can be problematic in the case of word problems, where no signs are given.
  2. In the second example, the student is referring to numbers as “big” and “small.” Numbers represent an amount, not a size. This can create a misconception with number sense and understanding how numbers work. The correct terms would be “greatest” and “least,” or “more” and “fewer.”
  3. In this example, the student is referring to the hour and minute hands as the “little” and “big” hands. This can affect a student’s ability to understand that time is made up of minutes and hours and depends on more than just the size of the hands on the clock.

They may seem like small errors that students will eventually grow out of saying, but if they are not addressed now, it can really hurt our students in the long run.

How to Teach Math Vocabulary

To correct this problem, I highly recommend devoting a few minutes a day to math vocabulary practice in your class. Start by looking up a list of math words that students in your grade level should know, and introduce new terms as they come up in instruction. (Here’s a great list for 2nd grade!)

It’s a great idea to have students keep a vocabulary journal for their math words. This is a place where they can keep a list of math terms and their definitions. You can also do some activities to further work in vocabulary practice each day.

Math vocabulary activities and journal

5 Vocabulary Activity Ideas

1. Charades

math vocabulary charades

Play vocabulary charades by splitting students into groups and having each team act out a vocabulary word. The other students in the class may try to guess the word being acted out. In the image below, these students are acting out the word “fourths.”

Vocabulary charades for math.

2. Pictionary

Alternatively, students could instead draw out the math vocabulary word instead of act it out. This is a great way to integrate art!

3. Catch Phrase

One student is given a word and must describe the word (without saying it) while the rest of the class tries to guess the word. Alternatively, this could be played as “Who Am I?” where each student must guess the word they’ve been given as other students give clues to help them figure it out.

4. Matching

math vocabulary matching games

Create cards where students must match the definition to the word. They can play a memory game out of it, where they flip over two at a time and get to keep the cards if they match. Or, they can play Partner Up! where half the class is given a word, and the other half the matching definitions, and students must find their partner.

5. Vocabulary Dominoes

vocabulary dominoes activity

Vocabulary dominoes have a word on one side and a definition on the other. Students must lay out the dominoes so that each word is touching the matching definition.

Need some help teaching math vocabulary? I have vocabulary cards and activities in my store for 2nd grade math. It includes everything you need for vocabulary for the entire year!

Do you teach math vocabulary?


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