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  • by Blaine Helwig

Kinesthetic Vocabulary Learning – Math and Science Block

Prior to reading this short blog, it is recommended the educator read the October 2nd posted blog entitled: Kinesthetic Vocabulary Learning – Language Arts Block.

Math and science are core learning areas that present an added element of difficulty when building students' vocabulary base. The vocabulary in these two subject areas are precise, and quite often possess singular technical meaning. Specific core content vocabulary words like density, proper fraction, inertia, oxidation, photosynthesis, and translation possess lexicon definitions that are usually complex for elementary and middle school students to grasp. The science or math teacher must create a lingua franca or common language using simple definitions that convey understandable meaning to elementary and middle school aged students – especially in Title 1 classroom settings.

An important point that must be stressed in both subjects is that vocabulary words are used in a non-contextual manner on standardized State assessments, unlike a reading passage in language arts where the vocabulary word is given a contextual setting in a paragraph. Either the student understands the science or math vocabulary word prior to encountering it, or they do not. The lingua franca must be taught for each word or the students will not comprehend significant portions of the presented science or mathematical situation.

Students in mathematics should associate a numerical example to the specific definition when applicable. For example, proper fractions and improper fractions: Students should cite specific numerical examples that define each term. In science, it is beneficial to have a common example associated with a vocabulary term. For instance, the word ‘mixture’ (i.e. physically heterogeneous) can be remembered as a salad bowl with different fruit types; whereas, an example of a ‘solution’ is a can of soda – Coca Cola, for instance.

Kinesthetic and Auditory Learning – Mathematics and Science

The kinesthetic instructional element is of pivotal importance for students to ingrain difficult vocabulary word definitions in both mathematics and science. The math or science teacher must provide a viable format with clear directions and expectations, but the ‘acting – movement definition’ must match the simple definition of the word. It is also highly beneficial if students collaborate with the teacher to create the body movement for each word or a rhyme to depict a specific vocabulary word. Similarly, students may be guided in this process and feel empowered and engaged in their learning. Please note: The same general kinesthetic procedures and routines described in the language arts blog posted on October 2nd work similarly in both mathematics and science.

Kinesthetic Learning - Science

When the teacher says ‘density,’ the students can place their arms around their bodies to represent compact or packed. ‘Weathering’ can be a quiet slapping of their hand on their other hand to represent the pounding of wind and water on rocks – and their fists opening to represent the breaking apart of the rock from plant roots or water freezing to ice and expanding. ‘Erosion’ can be kinesthetically represented by two cupped hands translating horizontally - parallel movement to the floor to illustrate movement of sediments by water or wind. The movements will readily associate the word with precise and concise definition. As expected, physical movement associations that mirror similar real world action with science vocabulary words heightens student retention and learning via multiple learning modalities; however, the kinesthetic learning process clearly separates related science concepts like weathering and erosion that are easily confused by young students.

Kinesthetic Learning - Mathematics

When the teacher says ‘parallel lines’ or ‘perpendicular lines, the kinesthetic depiction can be as simple as students vertically hold both arms ‘parallel’ in front of their body as opposed to using their arms to make a ‘cross’ at right angles with to represent ‘perpendicular lines.’ A translation may be as simple as a lateral step ‘slide' to the right or left; whereas, a rotation may be represented by a ‘pirouette.’ The physical movements need only be collectively agreed upon between students and teacher and of course, kinesthetically repeated throughout the week(s) during transition times to provide sufficient practice and repetition.


When teaching science or mathematics in elementary and middle schools, the teacher must devote considerable time to create simple definitions for the many words in these two subjects. Vocabulary instruction should include simple definitions and numerical examples in mathematics and common every day examples with science terms.

Finally, the teacher should ask reflectively during this process, ‘Is this science or mathematics definition sufficiently simple to be readily understood by a 3rd grader?’ It is also imperative that students view the word in print form and hear the word pronounced - correctly! Otherwise, they may readily identify and comprehend the vocabulary word from an auditory perspective, but do not recognize the word in its print form in a math or science word problem format or question. An active vocabulary word wall readily serves as a viewable print format for students as well as an easy visual word reference for teachers during the daily kinesthetic activity.

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