Do I Have to Teach Vocabulary in Math?

As a member of the numeracy committee for my school division, I get the chance to listen and learn from many gifted math teachers in our division.  I love the collaborative nature of the meetings, designed to move us in the direction of better instruction for our students.  This week one of the important topics of discussion stemmed around our desire for continuity in the teaching of math vocabulary.

So what’s the deal?  Would teaching common terms to our students really make a big difference? Should we be taking our math time to address vocabulary? Yes!  The research is clear.  Math vocabulary instruction is effective and vital to support deeper math understanding.

Research has informed us that semantics, word identification, and vocabulary (e.g., repeated readings, rhymes), as shown in Figure 1, are essential cognitive features in word problem solutions (Capraro, Capraro, & Cifarelli, 2007) just as they are in reading comprehension and understanding (Pressley, 2002; Smagorinsky, Cook, & Reed, 2005).
Figure 1. (Capraro, Robert M., Mary Margaret Capraro, and William H. Rupley. 2010)vocab fig1
Another great resource is the article by Pamela Dunsten and Andrew Tyminski.  I’ll try to summarize some of the important points here, but take a moment to read the full article for a more comprehensive explanation. What’s the Big Deal about Vocabulary?
  • Math vocabulary terms should be taught in the context of learning math concepts.
  • Using a variety of different models/graphic organizers for students to express their understanding, is effective.  (ie. The Freyer model, tables, Four Square model, Feature Analysis tables, etc.)
  • Providing examples of what a term is, and what it is not, leads to deeper understanding.
  • Associating new vocabulary terms with words or concepts that a student already knows helps them to retain the new word with a meaningful context.
  • Having students express their understanding of terms with pictures, numbers and/or words, leads to deeper conceptualization.
 In the meeting, we all agreed that it would be beneficial to come up with a common list of vocabulary assigned according to curriculum standards at each grade level.  This would be an important first step in the process. My many thanks to Rebecca Nelson-Fitzpatrick for sharing the list developed at her school.  Though the list is not comprehensive, it is a great start taken from the AB program of studies.  It definitely is a great first step and one that should be shared in the interest of meeting student needs. The next step is to provide direct instruction and practice.
Can we achieve the dream of weaving good vocabulary instructional practices into our math instruction?  We absolutely must. With that end in mind, this week’s newsletter freebie is a complete word wall of the common words from AB’s Program of Studies for Kindergarten to Grade 6. Not only that, but I’ve put together some printable graphic organizer black-line masters to help you “achieve the dream” in your classroom!
 To get access to this FAB FREEBIE, and others,  just subscribe to my newsletter on the sidebar or in the pop-up.  I can’t wait to connect and share with you.


Capraro, Robert M., Mary Margaret Capraro, and William H. Rupley. 2010. “Semantics and Syntax: A Theoretical Model for How Students May Build Mathematical Misunderstandings.” Journal of Mathematics Education 3 (2): 5866. doi:

Fisher, Douglas, and Nancy Frey. 2008. Word Wise and Content Rich, Grades 712: Five Essential Steps to Teaching Academic Vocabulary. Portsmouth, NH:Heinemann.

Dunsten, Pamela J. and Tyminski, Andrew M., “What’s the Big Deal about Vocabulary?” Mathematics Teaching in the Middle School. Vol.19, No. 1, August 2013, The National Council of Teachers of Mathematics, Inc.

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