4 Reasons Teaching Math Vocabulary is Vital

Reasons to Teach Math VocabularyPhoto Credit: woodleywonderworks via Compfight cc (Text added)

There were many reasons why I opted to major in mathematics rather than history, art history, or English (although let’s be honest…I never really considered majoring in English.). One of the main reasons, however?

Math doesn’t require reading and writing. Just numbers and problem solving.

That was my thinking anyway, as I jumped into my freshman year. And to some extent, I was right. Over the course of my undergraduate career, I wrote a total of two research papers. Yup that’s right, two.

I had to write a few short essay type papers for some English and writing classes, but in terms of hefty, extensive writing? I just didn’t do it. I did math problems. And wrote math proofs. And did a little bit of computer coding.

But what I eventually came to realize is that while math writing and vocabulary may not look the same as the beautiful, creative, eloquent prose you find in other disciplines, it is present. And it is vitally important.

This truth became even more apparent as I made my way into the math classroom, ready to teach and excite young minds. Math is it’s own language. Sometimes that language looks like written word and sometimes it looks like symbols, but it is a language and it must be learned for math fluency and competency. Why?

Well here are the four biggest reasons that I see:

1. You have to understand what the question is asking if you want to get it right.

While many people may think I am simply referring to “word problems,” I’m not. Every math problem gives directions or asks a question of some sort, and a student, no matter how good they are at computation, risks getting the problem wrong if they cannot understand what the question is asking them to do.

2. Often, everyday words have a different meaning in a mathematical context.

This may cause more problems for younger students than those in middle or high school, but such words as “difference,” “true,” or “product” can have different definitions or connotations in our everyday life. It is essential that students are taught and can understand the appropriate meaning of a word when in the context of a math problem.

3. More and more classrooms have a large or even a majority of ESL students. 

When I taught in an 8th grade math class, most students did not speak English as their first language. At that point, they were all very fluent, but because it was not their first language, there were a lot of math terms they did not know compared to their peers. For example, I gave a pre-test on 3D shapes, surface area and volume, and while no one in the class knew how to solve the computational problems, most of the English speaking students came in already knowing the vocabulary associated with it. It’s important that ESL learners are taught important words so that they are not left behind.

4. To allow for meaningful math discussions.

One goal in teaching math should be to get students talking. It is important that students are able to bounce ideas off of each other and discuss how they solved a problem or what they’re thinking as they try to work it out. Knowing and understanding some of the “math words” can help students explain their thinking. And while I always encourage students to explain things in their own words, at some point they will need to know precise math terms to move on to deeper understandings and discussion.

When teaching vocabulary:

Math vocabulary does not necessarily need to be taught the same way it is taught in a language arts class. While vocabulary lists or notebooks, etc. may certainly be helpful, the best way for students to fully understand the meaning of terms is to see it and use it in the context of a math problem.

I also believe it is important to try and let students see and explore the math before you give them formal definitions. Let them discover mathematical truths on their own, and then give the precise term for what they’ve learned.

And as a side note, when I was teaching in a high school classroom, I always had vocabulary questions on each test. That’s how important I believe it is for students to be able to understand and explain math terms. These questions were not matching a word to a definition or writing out a formal definition. Rather, it would be something like, “True or false: It is possible for a quadratic equation to have two zeros. Explain your reasoning.” I want to know that they understand what all of those words mean well enough to apply it and explain it.

Want some other resources for helping students understand math vocabulary? Check out this post, with free vocabulary handouts for the classroom!

For more ideas on how to teach and help students remember math terms, check out this page from K-5 Math Teaching Resources, or this article from NCTE on the 5 C’s Method of teaching vocabulary. Primary Inspiration also has some fun vocabulary riddles that are free!

Hope this is helpful! Do you encourage and/or explicitly teach math vocabulary? What are some of your tips?

~Math Geek Mama


  1. Hi Bethany, what is your opinion about the Mathstart (Stuart J. Murphy) books. I thought these would be a great way to facilitate incorporation of math vocabulary into literacy acquisition, from a young age.

    1. I think that’s a great idea! I’m only familiar with a couple of them, but in looking at the rest I think I’ll be checking some out at the library this summer! They seem like really fun books! 🙂 Best of luck!

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