Word Up! Using Vocabulary in Math

There is a common misconception (in many classrooms and homes) that vocabulary is something that supports ELA, reading and writing. Many people realize that vocabulary can also support content areas that are literacy or language-based, such as social studies and science. Unfortunately, too often we neglect to realize the important role that vocabulary plays in the development of mathematical understanding. Today, I am proposing that we treat math vocabulary as we would vocabulary for literacy! I’m talking charts, posters, word walls and even personal dictionaries. Our kids need to be speaking like mathematicians so that they can develop an understanding of mathematical language.

Why Is Vocabulary So Important?

Sometimes it is hard to see the “why” behind certain areas of learning. Vocabulary development is crucial for a number of reasons.

  1. The wider your child’s vocabulary, the more easily he/she will know what the questions/directions are asking.
  2. The wider your child’s vocabulary, the more clearly he/she will understand the teacher’s lesson.
  3. The more words your child uses, the more words he/she will understand when they encounter them in both written and oral language.
  4. The more words your child uses, the stronger their written (long response) language will be when explaining their mathematical process.

Here is what I propose:

Teachers In School

You need some kind of system for displaying math vocabulary. The most obvious method would be a math word wall. You might also want students to have a personal dictionary, where they are in charge of writing new words for each topic. As you teach each unit, you should be introducing new vocabulary. Some of the vocabulary may be previewed at the start of the unit, and some should be introduced on the day when you will be first using it to discuss math. Each time you introduce a word, you should discuss the word as a class. Write the word on an index card or sentence strip so that it can easily be added to the word wall. Within your word wall, you may choose to color code (for topics) or organize the words into categories that support learning. The most important things are:

  1. You have the words displayed in a physical location in the classroom so that students may refer back to them as a resource throughout the unit of study or even the year.
  2. You review the words with students before adding it to the word wall
  3. You include some kind of definition and/or visual model/example for the word so that kids have an anchor (a way to remind them of the meaning).

What do you do at the end of the unit? Good question! Surely you can’t have a math word wall for each unit…that would leave no space for any other charts or word walls in your classroom. I suggest have a section for “All Year” words and “Unit Words.” The “All Year” words stay up all year because they are necessary for all or most units (ex: multipication, sum, measurement, unit, etc.) The “Unit Words” are more specific and change with each unit (ex: Geometry: dimentional, sphere, rectangular prism, angle, etc.)


One great way to have students use vocabulary words in math is to offer incentives. I am in full support of using non-materialistic incentives to encourage students to be speaking more mathematically. For example:

  • “If you use at least 2 word wall words your explanation you get an extra point on your test”
  • “If you are able to use the word ______________ in an explanation today, you can sit on the beanbag chair while you do your math today.”
  • “Every time we hear the word _________, lets clap our hands twice” (word of the day)
  • “I am going to choose __________ to help me grade the math tests because he used the word “parallelogram” in his response.”

Families At Home

Just because you are not a math teacher, doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t be encouraging the use of mathematical language at home. Think of the home as a learning environment as well. You can and should do things to support vocabulary use at home as well. Here are some ideas for how to incorporate math vocabulary into your home:

  • Find a designated space that can act as a word wall and post words in a place where your child can see them while doing homework.
  • Make math an arts-and-crafts event! Each week come up with 3 new words to create by painting, cutting out letters, using alphabet magnets, using alphabet cereal, etc.
  • Don’t have enough space to post the words on your walls? Help your child make a book ring! A book ring is a binder ring that you can add index cards to. Just punch a hole in each card at the same spot and you will have a book ring. The child can even keep it in his HW folder to bring back and forth from school to home.
  • Make a graph of the math words your family uses. This will encourage other members of your family to be speaking mathematically as well.

How Do You Know Which Words Are Important?

This is a big deal! We need to know which words are important before we introduce them. Firstly, recognize that most curricula include lists of vocabulary words at the start of each unit. This can be a great resource. Secondly, lets keep in mind that this is a logical problem with a logical solution. The words we need to teach are the ones students don’t know. Sit with your class or child and ask them to circle the words they’re not sure of. You can even do this with a list at the start of a unit and use the circled words as a guide. Finally, here are some resources that can help!


Illustrated Math Dictionary

[amazon-product text=”Math Dictionary for Kids: The Essential Guide to Math Terms, Strategies, and Tables” type=”text”]159363644X[/amazon-product] [amazon-product text=”Oxford Poly Index Card Binder” type=”text”]B0018190H4[/amazon-product]


Here is what some of my vocabulary tools might look like.

I might keep a binder ring or index card binder, adding cards for each new vocabulary word. I would probably have a table of contents on the front to help stay organized!

I would keep up an "All Year" word wall in addition to a "Unit Words" word wall.

This is an example of a "Unit Word Wall" for Geometry.


Interested in learning more about how to support math and vocabulary at home? Read more here:

Create a Poster…or a few

Organic Strategies for Test Prep: Math Short Response

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