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Sunday / January 22

10 Ideas for Vocabulary Instruction in Math

There is a strong correlation between a student’s word knowledge and future academic success. Evidence shows that what students already know about a topic is a reliable predictor of how easy they will learn new information in that topic. Words are the tools students use to access background knowledge, to make necessary connections, to learn about new concepts, and to express those ideas in everyday life. In fact, the more terms you know about a specific subject, the easier it is to understand and learn new information related to that subject. One builds upon the other.

It takes a numeracy-rich environment for authentic vocabulary learning to occur. The power of numeracy lies in the empowerment of students; that is, students are given opportunities to use academic vocabulary in a natural setting and to recognize and appreciate how that term relates to the world both inside and outside the math class.

As teachers, we need to look at developing vocabulary in mathematics. Learning new content vocabulary is critical to deepening mathematical understanding. Without an appreciation of the content vocabulary involved, students are often denied access to mathematics. Understanding math language gives students the proficiency they need to mull around in the math a bit, integrate old knowledge with newly learned vocabulary, and apply that learned knowledge in new situations.

The authors of Bringing Words to Life (Beck, McKeown, Kucan 2002) explain that effective vocabulary instruction does not rely solely on definitions. Writing definitions out of a math dictionary is just not enough. When vocabulary instruction is effective, students learn the words, use the words, remember the words, and can ultimately apply the words fluently in different contexts.

Research indicates that when vocabulary instruction is direct and purposeful, it is effective. One of the most consistent findings related to effective vocabulary instruction is that students need multiple exposures to a word in order to learn it. Essentially, the more times students are exposed to a new vocabulary word, the stronger the understanding becomes. We sometimes forget a child needs to hear and use a word several times before it can be assimilated into daily conversation. Consequently, teachers should consider how to make multiple exposures to the word or concept frequent, novel, meaningful, and engaging. In other words, we need to make vocabulary instruction come alive!

Below you will find 10 ideas for making vocabulary instruction engaging, meaningful, and lasting:

1. An Interactive Word Wall

As students learn new vocabulary words, add them to a Word Wall. You can simply add the words or have students create a poster of each word including a visual, student definition, examples & non-examples. Allow students to move words around on the word wall according to whatever challenges you present. Provide opportunities to categorize the concepts, create hierarchies, and/or identify words that would connect to the learning that day.

You can also play a mystery word game giving hints while students guess the appropriate word. The student who guesses can then take a turn identifying a new mystery vocab. Another great idea is to choose one word and have students create questions that can be answered using the word. Students can play “fact or fib” using a word wall. As you choose one word and read statements about that word, students decide whether that statement is a fact or fib. This can easily be adapted into “sometimes, always, never” statements. Of course, it is important to discuss reasoning behind all activities using an interactive word wall.

The word wall below comes from a Ms. Clark’s fifth grade class at First Philadelphia Charter School. It is magnetized to allow for easy movement of the words.

word wall2. Conduct a Word Hunt through Specified Textbook Pages as a Pre-teaching Strategy.

As a way to build background knowledge, have students preview the text pages and with a partner identify any vocabulary words that might trip them up during the lesson. Students can keep their own “confusing words” list and use that list to search for answers and clarify misconceptions. Make sure to revisit and revise the list so students can keep track of growth.

3. Inside/Outside Circle

Each student receives a vocabulary word on an index card. Students are to define and draw an example of the word on the back of the card. Students form two concentric circles – inside circle facing out and outside circle facing in so that each student is facing a partner. Students alternate asking partners either definition or term. Teachers move circles to find new partners and repeat steps.

4. Frontload Multiple-Meaning Words

Mathematics often uses words with multiple meanings. This can be very confusing for students. It is helpful to present these words prior to the lesson and ask students to brainstorm various meanings. If need be, simply let students know what the math meaning is. This revelation can be a relief to students with limited background knowledge. Some examples of multiple-meaning words in mathematics are substitute, regular, similar, angle, chord, expression, etc.

5. Word Wizard

Have students become “word wizards” by challenging them to discover their math vocabulary used somewhere outside the school setting. Of course, they will need to bring “proof,” which could be a news article, a quote from a relative, a picture emailed to you with a description, a drawing with a caption, a TV quote, etc. This activity raises awareness of how academic vocabulary is used in everyday life (Allen, 2000).

6. List-Group-Label, Word Sort, or Circle the Category

Classifying and categorizing vocabulary words are important skills for comprehension and application. A closed sort means you provide both terms and the categories. An open sort means you students are given the terms but are not given the category titles. It is up to them to create and justify groups and titles for each group. Circle the category is a kinesthetic way to either do an open or closed sort. Students receive the words and get up to form groups.

7. Double-Dutch Chants

Start with a word sort of the terms, and then read aloud an excerpt from Double Dutch: A Celebration of Jump Rope, Rhyme, and Sisterhood by Veronica Chambers (2002). Push the thinking by having students develop their own jump rope chants based on their favorite category of math terms. The power lies in the physical act of jumping and chanting. You just may hear your students whispering their chants during standardized testing.jump rope

8. Concept Circles

Concept circles are circles divided into quarters. You can design this activity differently:

  • Include four terms and challenge students to recognize how they are related. Students can provide an appropriate topic title.
  • Write one word that doesn’t belong. Students recognize and defend their answers. This can be open-ended so all answers can be right as long as the explanation is mathematically sound.
  • Include three words and leave the last quarter blank asking students to find another related term and justify their answer.
  • Leave all quarters blank. Students fill in related terms or sketches with shared explanations.

9. Pre- and Post- Concept Checks

This tool for vocabulary development takes just a minute to prepare, and the payoff is big for both teachers and students. If the objective for your lesson can only be achieved with a clear understanding of certain terms, or if your lesson is heavy on vocabulary, this is a great entry point.


  1. Ahead of time, pull out the terms that are most important.
  2. Have students rate their understanding of the terms before the lesson using the rating scale below.
  3. Circulate the room using this as a formative assessment. Adapt lesson accordingly.
  4. After the lesson, have student re-rate their understanding and prove this rating by creating representations or writing an explanation (Forget, 2004, p.230).


+ could teach it

Kind of know it

No clue

Before the Learning Rating Terms After the Learning Rating
________ Mean ________
________ Median ________
________ Mode ________
________ Range ________

10. Vocabulary Cartoons

Vocabulary Cartoons work on the principle of mnemonics. A mnemonic device helps with retrieval by associating it with something you already know. Vocabulary cartoons link a rhyming word with a visual in the form of a humorous cartoon.

In the example below, the new math term chord is associated with the word bored. A chord is a line segment connecting two points on a circle’s circumference. By definition, a diameter is a chord, but there are endless other chords that do not pass through the center point of the circle. In this case, the chord is bored because, even though he’s invited into the circle, he’s rarely ever in the center of it all.

Figure 3

Pearse, Margie. Teaching Numeracy: 9 Critical Habits to Ignite Mathematical Thinking. Thousand Oaks: Corwin, 2011.

Written by

Margie Pearse has over 30 years of teaching experience with certifications in mathematics, elementary education, English as a Second Language (ESL), and Pennsylvania Quality Assurance Systems (Certified Instructor – PQAS 2014). She is presently at First Philadelphia Preparatory Charter School as their K-12 Math Coach and in higher education, training pre-service teachers how to create deeper, more numeracy based lessons.

Margie’s educational philosophy can be summed up as such, “Why NOT reinvent the wheel! Yesterday’s lessons will not suffice for students to succeed in tomorrow’s world. We need to meet students, not just where they are, but where they need to be. There is great potential in every child. It is our job to empower students to discover that potential and possess the tenacity and self-efficacy to reach it.”

Published Books: Teaching Numeracy: 9 Critical Habits to Ignite Mathematical Thinking, released by Corwin in 2011; Learning That Never Ends, released by Rowman & Littlefield in 2013; and Passing the Mathematics Test for Elementary Teachers, by Rowman & Littlefield, February 2015.

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  • Hello! This post was recommended for The Best of the Math Teacher Blogs 2016: a collection of people’s favorite blog posts of the year. We would like to publish an edited volume of the posts at the end of the year and use the money raised toward a scholarship for TMC. Please let us know by responding via http://goo.gl/forms/LLURZ4GOsQ whether or not you grant us permission to include your post. Thank you, Tina and Lani.

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