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NYC Helpline: How To: Teach Math
Effective Mathematics Vocabulary Instructional
Strategies You Can Count On Part 2

Luzviminda “Luchie” B. Canlas 

Here are some strategies we can use to immediately support our students:

  • Pre-teach mathematics terms so that there are no surprises to the children. Provide direct and explicit instruction to prepare them with the necessary schema and background information they need when solving problems or performing math activities. Use sensory stimulation (visuals: pictures, posters; movement: acting out of words, songs, dance; videos: technology; auditory supports: literature, read alouds; and tactile aids: games, manipulatives) to teach vocabulary. Brain research also suggests that in order for the mind to retain information, we need to reinforce, find, or provide multiple and varied opportunities for them to use these words throughout the day whenever possible.
  • Model the vocabulary words. Choose appropriate examples that are grade level appropriate and that will meet the needs of all the learners. Use graphic organizers that will help them understand the word in a deeper level. Model how to use the graphic organizers and show how to use these when they write their math reflections and thoughts. Some examples of graphic organizers to use aside from Semantic maps, and Venn Diagrams, are:
    • Frayer Model – This word categorization activity helps deepen understanding of math concepts by allowing the students to provide their own definition, lists of properties, characteristics or facts, and then give their examples and non-examples. This is a powerfully challenging tool to complete because provision of non-examples is not easy. By requiring them to complete this section, we can assess if our students have really owned the word or concept. (Frayer, Frederick, & Klausmeier, 1969).
    • Semantic Feature Analysis – This graphic organizer helps students discern a word’s meaning by comparing its features, properties, or characteristics to other terms that are in the same category. It is an impressive visual matrix that will remind and show how some math vocabulary words have differences or similarities. Students will be able to distinguish and refine their thinking more as they complete this valuable tool. When doing this, remember to encourage your students to provide the rationale behind their decisions. This is another excellent way to assess, generate, and promote meaningful discourse and communication in your classroom.  
      • Select an area or category of study.
      • Create a matrix. Put the terms on the left (first column). Write the features on top of the columns on the matrix (first row).
      • Ask the students to put a check or X mark to indicate when a property/feature applies to the term.
      • Encourage students to share their observations and findings.

Semantic Feature Analysis Grid





















    • Concept Definition Map – This graphic organizer will help students comprehend the meaning of key words and concepts. They will understand the “essential attributes, qualities, properties, or characteristics of a concept/word. Students are required to describe, in their own words, what the term is, make the necessary comparisons, list the properties, and provide sufficient examples in writing or pictures. These maps can be used to help the student develop communication skills. They allow students to share their reasoning, make connections, make elaborations/extensions, and applications/examples from their own experiences. (Schwartz, 1988).

  • Give students the chance to talk about math vocabulary in small groups. Encourage peer tutoring, discussions in partnerships, and turn and talks.
  • Give writing assignments that will make students use the math vocabulary they learned.
  • Have students complete math journals where they can reflect on their learning using the math terms.
  • Frequently review the vocabulary in fun ways. Use index cards where children can match the definitions with the words.
  • Make your Math Word Wall interactive. Set it up where students can access it readily to put their own definitions and illustrations at the back of the word card. This process will allow them to “own” the word faster.
  • Have your students create their own “Math Glossary” or “Math Dictionary” or “Math AlphaBoxes.” An AlphaBox is just a simple matrix of 26 cells that you or your students can create. Every cell will have a letter of the alphabet (no repetitions), and what they’ll do is to write the new words they learned in the appropriate cell. For example, the word “addend” will be placed in cell “A,” the word “diameter” will be placed in cell “D.” You can make an alphabox for every unit or topic. You can use a manila folder as an alphabox and this can be folded and put in the Math Center for students to retrieve whenever needed.
  • We need to teach our students to be independent in finding meanings of words so we need to teach them how to use references such as dictionaries, thesauruses, and glossaries in their textbooks.
  • Teach students how to read math texts. There are nonfiction texts structures that they need to know how to read. Tell them to pay extra attention to words that are highlighted or written in bold.
  • Read aloud to your students. Most vocabulary is learned indirectly. Select literature that will reinforce math concepts and have math terms. This is also one way for your students to make real life connections in mathematics.

Mathematics teachers can really do a whole lot to teach vocabulary effectively to students. I encourage you to learn and apply some or all of these strategies because by doing so, you’ll help create a community of excited and inspired learners.

If you have a question or comment about this article e-mail Luchie.


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