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  • by Blaine Helwig

Mathematics Vocabulary – A Necessary Addition

Kenton Weeks, a South Dakota rancher and farmer, opened the door of his truck. He and his dog got out of the cab and walked into his largest corn field. He stopped and stared at the wilting crops. Frustrated, he kicked his foot hard into the dirt pushing up a cloud of dry dust. His dog jumped and moved a few feet away. As he watched the small dust cloud, he thought about the TV weatherman’s comment the night before that the region was experiencing its worst drought in fifty years.

He pondered to himself, “How many weeks had it been since they had a good, hard rain? One month, he thought. Yeah, it had been at least one full month.”

Kenton looked up at the blue sky and then said to his dog. “If these crops are going to survive, water needs to fall from the skies – sooner than later.” He kicked at the dirt again and walked directly into the dust cloud toward his truck.

If this short passage were a typical fifth grade reading excerpt, which of the following answers is the best definition for word ‘drought’ as it is used in the short passage above? As any elementary teacher has observed in a typical reading comprehension passage, the word ‘drought’ can be contextually understood using the adjacent sentences in which the word appears. In fact, reading comprehension passages are designed in this manner.

However, this vocabulary contextual situation is NOT true in mathematics word problems. When specific math words appear in the sentences, students either know the definition or they do not. Unlike a reading passage, a math word problem is not designed for contextual understanding of specific mathematics vocabulary.

For example, Andrea decided to plant a rectangular flower garden in her backyard. She measured ten feet for its length and 5 feet for the garden’s width. She prepared the soil and planted roses in half of the garden and wild flowers in the other half. From start to finish, it took her 4 hours to complete the garden. What is the perimeter of Andrea’s garden?

If a student does not know the mathematical definition of the word ‘perimeter,’ they cannot successfully compute the distance around the garden’s boundaries. Only one math vocabulary term in the entire word problem passage makes the problem unsolvable independent of a student’s numerical math prowess. The student must know the precise definition of math words. Put simply, vocabulary is an absolute additive in teaching mathematics.

Teaching Math Vocabulary in Print Form is also Non-Negotiable

When I was a middle school student 45 years ago, my math teacher used the word ‘isosceles’ the direct teach portion of math lessons with no reference to its visual spelling. I understood them orally as we worked numerical problems with numbers assigned to the triangle’s edge lengths and angle measures. But, when I read the word in print, I recall I was surprised how those two words were actually spelled. I did not recognize the word ‘isosceles’ in print despite the fact I could numerically work isosceles triangle math problems. It is important that students not only know the precise meaning of math vocabulary words, but they view the word in print form so students possess a visual recognition and connection.

With so many students possessing limited English verbal skills, a math vocabulary word wall with a focus on accountability of key math terms is essential in the elementary classroom – with all math vocabulary definitions presented in the most student friendly form using the fewest words possible accompanied with a numerical example. For example, a teacher should consider the vocabulary development of the word ‘perimeter’ with a simple definition of “measure around.” The definition should include a dimensionally labeled quadrilateral and all four sides summed.

Finally, kinesthetic learning is another effective pedagogical tool and a key to student vocabulary development. There are two blogs on this website available for further information in core areas of language arts, mathematics and science, if interested.

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