Vocabulary is so important. Using it effectively allows everyone to describe better what they are thinking and makes explanations more concise. Within the area of mathematics, there is a wealth of vocabulary which children need to be introduced to. There are probably a multitude of thoughts and opinions related to this but, in this post, I am going to say why I think it is important to engage with vocabulary within mathematics and some strategies which can be used in the classroom to support this.
Should we use the vocabulary?
When I am teaching mathematics at university, there is a session in which we discuss the use of mathematical vocabulary. In this session we talk about words such as ‘denominator’, ‘product’ and ‘quotient’ and I pose the question, would you use these words with the children?
Interestingly enough the learners often say probably not or only with older children. It is at this point that I bring into the discussion the words which the children are introduced to through their phonic training – from phonemes to digraphs. Surely, if they are learning phonic vocabulary, then why not the words used within mathematics?
Children really like words. They like the challenge of using them and having that knowledge that they know a word which maybe their parents are unaware of. This could be seen as a valid reason to introduce the children to new words. But reasoning is so important within the mathematics curriculum and knowing and using vocabulary actually allows children to explain their arguments and proofs clearly and concisely.
Taking all of this onboard I would encourage the use of mathematics vocabulary throughout lessons and school. Not only does it present the children with a challenge, but it will also allows them to provide more concise and supported explanations. So, if we are going to encourage the use of mathematical vocabulary, how do we achieve this within our lessons?
Strategies for introducing and using mathematics vocabulary
1) Ensure there is a clear and accessible definition
When teaching vocabulary it is important that we establish for ourselves an excellent understanding of what the word means. This definition needs to be clearly defined and communicated to the children whenever it is used. It is also important that any other adult within the classroom is using the same definition so that this does not get confusing for the children. Another positive strategy is to send these definitions home so the parents are aware which words the children might be using and will be able to use the same definition while the children are at home.
2) Introducing the words
When you have your definitions clear in your own mind and you have shared these with your adult support, then it is time to make the vocabulary accessible to the children.
Always aim to introduce and use a number of new vocabulary which is appropriate for the class. As a starting point, I would say a maximum of two words in key stage one and three to four in key stage two. The composition of the class will also be important here, so use professional judgement where needed.
Once you have decided on the words you are going to introduce then make them available to the children either on the whiteboard or a display. If there are already other words on the display board, then ensure that you identify the words which are being focusing on. For example, consider putting them within a designated area of the board and/or adding a circle around them.
When using the definitions, it is often beneficial to add actions to the definitions in order to support the learning.
This can can really support the learning and the memorisation of the definition.
3) Embedding them into practice.
Once the vocabulary has been decided on and introduced the next stage is to embed it into practice. For this I actually recommend three strategies.
- At the beginning of the topic ensure that you are using the vocabulary when responding to the children. For example, when a child refers to the bottom number of the fraction, say correct but add, we call that the denominator. This allows the child to see the use and meaning of the word.
- As the topic progresses, provide the children with vocabulary cards. These are simple pieces of paper which have the words down one column and then two other columns titled ‘teacher’ and ‘myself’. The idea of these cards is that the child places a tick every time they hear the teacher use the word in the teacher column and put their own tick in the ‘myself’ column when they use the word themselves. This will provide a running total of the interaction with the vocabulary and also encourages the children to go for the ticks!
- As the topic comes to an end, reverse the first strategy. At this point I, as the teacher, would use the previous child used phrase e.g. the bottom number of the fraction, and encourage the children to correct me by stating the newly learnt word -e.g. denominator
There are numerous strategies which you can use to engage with vocabulary. This post is just the start. And once you have these in place you can use them for other subjects as well, such as scientific words in science!
Vocabulary is important and we should not just assume that the children will ‘learn’ the words independently or even just start to use them. It is important that we model the words, the definitions and how to use them in order to encourage the children to achieve a deep understanding of the vocabulary and its use.