Chapter 2: Recognizing and Understanding Mathematical Vocabulary (BMC Book Study)

The language of math, you gotta love it! This chapter begins with Laney Sammons emphasizing that explicit instruction is needed to teach the specialized vocabulary of math. Sammons notes a fundamental difference in vocabulary acquisition in reading versus math. For reading, students have incidental exposure to words through daily conversations and reading, whereas in math, specific vocabulary is rarely used during everyday conversations (81). If you look at the chart below, you can see the different categories of math words and how they can hinder math comprehension if not explicitly taught in the context of math.

Vocabulary instruction DOES NOT mean copying definitions. Sammons refers to Beck and Marzano, who explain that the most effective type of instruction that increases vocabulary instruction needs to be robust. It needs to be thought-provoking, playful, interactive and REVISITED. Who ever knew that learning vocabulary could be so much fun?!

Sammons goes on to include Marzano's eight research-based characteristics of effective direct vocabulary instruction:
  • Vocabulary instruction does not rely on definitions.
  • Knowledge should be presented in linguistic and nonlinguistic ways.
  • Gradual shaping of word meanings occurs through multiple exposures
  • Teach word parts (milli-, centi-)
  • Different instruction for different words - in context and through concrete experiences
  • Verbal practice of word usage in authentic contexts
  • Play with words - KEY!
  • Focus on words that have a high probability of enhancing student success (50-53)
How do you know which words to teach? This is never an easy question to answer. One starting point Sammons recommends is teaching words that are highly likely to enhance student success. Choose words mentioned in the standards. These are the must-know words that students will need to understand the concepts, skills, and practices for that academic year (57).

Immersion in math vocabulary is key. Whether that means involving parents to "talk math" at home (60), offering time in math huddles to talk math in authentic contexts, or writing math (63-66), multiple exposures in multiple settings will help students understand and grasp the language of math.

 Other recommendations by Sammons...

Math Word Wall (67-68) Make it a "living word wall." Keep it current. Revisit it. Have students use the words to talk math.


Graphic Organizers (69-76). Graphic organizers help students to organize their thinking and show a conceptual understanding of math vocabulary. As Sammons recommended in the previous chapter, it is essential to model and do teacher think-alouds when introducing a new graphic organizer. Keep in mind the gradual release of responsibility back to the students. You might find this previous post interesting if you want to read more about graphic organizers. Do you have a graphic organizer that works well in math?

Games and Word Play (77-80). Games and word play are motivational ways to help your students become more word-conscious. If you click on the image below, you can find a few activity cards with wordplay recommendations from Sammons, along with a few others I have used to bring in some kinesthetic practice when reinforcing vocabulary usage. I cut these activity cards out and ring them so we can look at the math word wall and engage in some vocabulary play if I have a minute.

How do you teach vocabulary in the math classroom? What activities have you found to be helpful?
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