The Importance of Academic Language Vocabulary in the Math Classroom

By Joshua Russell, Maths teacher & Founder of Believe in Better Education

For some students, learning math can feel like assembling a particularly tricky piece of IKEA furniture.This might not seem that challenging to you: for teachers and experts, the pieces are all there, the instructions are in English, and you know who to ask when you get stuck.

Unfortunately, many students have foundational gaps in their knowledge, which make it more challenging for them to advance. You’ll often see this with students who are trying to add fractions without understanding exactly what fractions are. They just start adding–something they do have foundational knowledge of–without understanding how it will affect each of the numbers.

But this isn’t the only area where students will have trouble. The academic language we use to describe mathematical operations is often overlooked, rushed, or crudely simplified. If you’re taking on a new student or new class, you don’t always know if their academic math vocabulary is at an appropriate level.

If they haven’t been taught that the word “substitution” can be understood in terms of putting numbers in place of letters, they may be relying on an unconnected procedural memory alone. This puts these students at a disadvantage as they learn topics that build on previous knowledge.

Additionally, if your students don’t understand that vocabulary is important, they may not take time to ask the meaning of the vocabulary being used. And that leaves them stuck, even if they have the math abilities to go forward. For many students, this process can be challenging and discouraging.

Angles on parallel lines is a particularly fraught topic for many of my students. The mathematical principles are rarely what catch students out. Instead, the names of the rules are the usual pitfall. But, vocabulary gives us the solution

Understanding that “corresponding” means “equivalent in character” makes it clearer how that rule works. Knowing that “alternate” means “change between contrasting places” explains why it refers to different sides of the transversal (crossing line). Realizing that “interior” means “inside” might be something we just expect students to know, but by missing the chance to repeat and strengthen this link, we don’t help those that would need this explicitly taught.

Other examples that I often use in my teaching include highlighting the meanings of the words involved in the first stages of trigonometry, such as opposite and adjacent. These words are not so complex that one may not know their meanings, but we can’t expect students to automatically have this vocabulary knowledge, and therefore mathematical literacy. All of these words mentioned are academic language, and not just in math: they’re the vocabulary used across various disciplines to express ideas and information

Prefixes & Suffixes: the Keys to Vocabulary

A final and important area that we should be looking to incorporate into our teaching is prefixes and suffixes. “Tri”-gonometry and “equa”-tion are just two examples of how prefix vocabulary can help students recall the necessary process.

Without this understanding, it can be discouraging for students who have been primarily taught in a procedural manner, rather than integrated. And it’s doubly frustrating when you know that the students have mastery of the procedures, so they would be able to succeed in the work if they understood the language surrounding it.

Vocabulary in Math: It’s More Than Numbers

While we may think math is only about numbers, it’s important to realize that learning happens through language and literacy. To support academic language literacy, you can check your students or children for understanding in both key skills and key vocabulary at the start of a topic. Helping them advance their mathematical literacy will positively impact them not only in your subject, but across the curriculum, an objective shared by all teachers.

Further Research:

Read: “Closing the Vocabulary Gap” by Alex Quigley

Do: Pick five mathematical words and research all the different meanings they can have and all the possible misunderstandings a student could have about their use.

Editor’s Note: Need some support providing vocabulary in your content area? LessonWriter allows teachers to customize dictionaries to their content area, as well as which definition(s) to include. Not a math teacher? No problem. LessonWriter provides literacy support in all subjects. Try it today