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Friday / March 23

Why Kids Should Learn the Language of Mathematics

Vocabulary terms and phrases are found everywhere in textbooks, in lesson plans presented by teachers during instruction, and can be observed in “I Can” student learning statements often written on whiteboards. So, why then must the language of mathematics be spoken and emphasized in every elementary classroom?

Language plays a critical role in learning mathematics.

Students need to correctly read, write, and talk about mathematical concepts. Allowing students to participate in mathematical discussions and conversations in the classrooms can help students make sense of the mathematics they are learning. Teaching mathematical language gives students tools to precisely articulate their thinking and explain their answers.

Students need multiple experiences to learn, practice, and apply academic language.

Students who have limited experiences or background knowledge may struggle to comprehend new concepts. Knowledge and use of a strong mathematical vocabulary lays the foundation and helps prepare students for what they will be learning in future grades. It is important to note that understanding a math vocabulary term is more than just memorizing the definition. It is critical that students investigate and explore the concepts before they are given definitions, as math definitions taught in isolation are absolutely meaningless for student retention. More than likely it will take numerous exposures over time for students to cement new vocabulary terms, concepts, and information. At the elementary level, students must be able to organize vocabulary terms into memory and recall the terms when needed, follow sequences of rules and procedures, and use the language of mathematics to enhance the understanding of concepts.

Students must be able to understand appropriate word meanings in the context of mathematics.

Some words students already know will have a different meaning in a mathematical context. For example, a fifth grader may think of the term mean and associate it with an unkind person vs. the mathematical definition of mean as the arithmetic average of a set of numbers. Operation is another term that may confuse students who think of it as a medical procedure. Depending on students’ backgrounds of experience, sometimes students “hear” words like prism and associate this term as prison. One of the best ways students can understand the meaning of terms is for them to see it and use it in the context of a math problem solving experience.

The use of mathematics vocabulary is a strong indicator of student success.

Language skills and comfort with mathematics vocabulary can have great impact on student achievement on state assessments. Lee and Hermer-Patrnode (2007) found students frequently do not know vocabulary terms used for tested items. Often students understand the concept but not the specific vocabulary word associated with a concept. A fourth grader recently missed a tested question that asked, “What is the perimeter of this figure?”

When asked by the teacher why the student skipped the question with no response, the student replied, “I thought I could either multiply or add but I do not know the words perimeter or figure.”

For many elementary students, the language of mathematics is truly foreign to them. Students in grades K-5 are exposed to hundreds of math vocabulary terms such as dividend or quotient, which they may not hear or see anywhere other than in school. Teachers have a tremendous role to play in actually (1) speaking and using the language of math with students in everyday classroom experiences; (2) providing multiple experiences for students to learn, practice, and apply the terminology; (3) helping students understand appropriate word meanings in the context of mathematics, and (4) focusing on the important terms associated with tested concepts and the vocabulary students need for further learning. Without a doubt, to effectively learn mathematics, students must speak the language and communicate math thinking clearly and coherently using the appropriate vocabulary. The language of mathematics must be spoken and emphasized in every elementary classroom so that students can use it.


Alexander, P. A., Kulikowich, J. M., & Schulze, S. K. (1994). How subject-matter knowledge affects recall and interestAmerican Educational Research Journal, 31(2), 313-337.

Bruun, F., Diaz, M., & Dykes, V. (2015) The language of mathematics. Teaching Children Mathematics Vol.21, 9

Burns, Marilyn. (2006) On the language of math. Instructor, v115 n7 p41-43.

Lee, H. J., & Hermer-Patnode, L. M. (2007). Teaching mathematic vocabulary todiverse groups. Intervention in School and Clinic, 43 (2), 121-127.

Riccomini, P.J., Smith, G.W., Hughes, E., & Fries., K.M., (2015) The language of mathematics: the importance of teaching and learning mathematical vocabulary. Reading & Writing Quarterly Vol. 31, 3.

Stahl, S. A., & Nagy, W. E. (2006). Teaching word meanings. Mahwah, New Jersey: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, INC.

Thompson, D., & Rubenstein, R. N. (2000). Learning mathematics vocabulary: Potential pitfalls and instructional strategies. The Mathematics Teacher, 93(7), 568-576.

Written by

Ruth Harbin Miles coaches rural, suburban, and inner-city school mathematics teachers. Her professional experience includes coordinating the K–12 Mathematics Teaching and Learning Program for the Olathe, Kansas, public schools for more than twenty-five years; teaching mathematics methods courses at Virginia’s Mary Baldwin University; and serving on the Board of Directors for the National Council of Supervisor’s of Mathematics, The National Council of Teachers of Mathematics, and the Kansas Association of Teachers of Mathematics. Ruth is a coauthor of thirty-seven books, including eleven Corwin publications. As an International Fellow with the Charles A. Dana Center, Ruth worked with classroom teachers in Department of Defense Schools, helping them implement College and Career Ready Standards. Developing teachers’ content knowledge and strategies for engaging students to achieve high standards in mathematics is Ruth‘s specialty.


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