Success in math isn’t only a matter of numbers; math vocabulary plays a huge role too! For students to gain true mastery of math, they need to become fluent in the language of mathematics. Becoming fluent means building a vocabulary that includes words from “addend” to the “y-axis,” understanding those words, and then being able to use them and apply them to new scenarios. Plus, a word can have one meaning inside the math classroom and an entirely different one outside of it, think of “odd” and “plane.” Math vocab also includes words and phrases that are also symbols that students need to learn how to recognize, read, and use (e.g., ℼ and √).
With many skills and standards to master, it can be tricky for math teachers to find time and opportunities to devote to vocabulary instruction. Keep reading to explore five fun ideas to teach math vocabulary.
5 Fun activities and tips for teaching math vocabulary
1. Incorporate vocabulary into Number Talks, Do Nows, and your other rituals and routines.
Vocabulary instruction doesn’t have to occur in an isolated vacuum; researchers say it shouldn’t be (File, Kieran & Adams, Rebecca, 2010)! Exposing students to math words as they are used authentically in context is an effective strategy to build their vocabulary. It can be relatively simple to do this: you can use your existing classroom rituals and routines–like Number Talks or Do Nows–as opportunities to integrate vocabulary learning.
Exposing students to a word will not be enough to grow their vocabulary. Repetition and context are key. As a word is used, take a moment to examine it with students. How is that vocabulary word being used in this problem or example? If the vocab word is relatively new to your students, you might provide direct instruction about its meaning and usage. If it’s a word students have seen many times already, you might pause for a quick check for understanding to reinforce the meaning and usage.
Here are some specific vocabulary activities you can implement into your classroom routines:
- Make a game of spotting the vocabulary. Ask students to keep an eye out for their math vocabulary words throughout the class. Consider creating a gesture or other signal that students can make if they see or hear one of the words used in a Number Talk or Do Now. Turn it into a friendly competition and offer prizes. Keep it easy and quick for you to implement, and this game can become its own vocabulary ritual that will foster engagement and keep the learning going and growing.
- Use Flocabulary to spot vocabulary words in a song. Flocabulary creates standards-aligned hip-hop infused videos for K-12 subjects. Every Flocabulary lesson includes 3-10 vocabulary words. Pause the video, or have students raise their hand for you to pause the video, whenever a vocab word is used. Look at the lyrics and visuals on the screen that represent the word or phrase, and discuss the vocabulary before you continue playing the song!
2. Have students speak, write, and draw their math vocabulary words.
Math teachers know the importance of manipulatives for gaining first-hand experience with abstract mathematical concepts. Similarly, students need opportunities to practice speaking, writing and drawing new words to fully incorporate those words into their vocabulary and make them their own.
Here are a few activities that provide students with this opportunity:
- Have students apply the word to a new scenario by writing a sentence or creating their own example problem.
- Ask students to draw a visual representation of a word.
- Pair students up or put them in small groups to have conversations using their vocabulary.
- Use a Frayer model graphic organizer. This typically includes four boxes for each vocabulary word with space for students to create a definition, list examples, list non-examples, and describe features or facts.
- Assign students Flocabulary’s Vocab Cards. Inspired by the Frayer model, Vocab Cards feature a definition in student-friendly language, words, parts of speech, an image, synonyms, antonyms, and an example sentence. There is room for students to practice writing an example and drawing the word, too. Assign these Vocab Cards and have students share their work, or you can complete them front-of-class together.
3. Have students keep a journal with examples and definitions of their vocabulary words.
In a vocabulary journal, you can have students log any new words they have encountered incidentally while solving word problems, the vocabulary words you introduced, or provided direct instruction around, or a combination of both!
How much and what you have students record for each word is up to you! But again, knowing the importance of exposing students to a word in multiple contexts, you might have students create a running log with space for additional examples of the word used in context as they come across them. Having a journal is especially useful during test prep season because students can refer back to what they’ve learned.
Here’s a breakdown of how students can create a vocabulary journal:
- Adding words to the journal will help students commit the new vocabulary to memory. For each entry, students can write the word, a predicted definition from context, the real definition they find, and examples.
- Students can use the journal to self-assess. Have them set up the page with the words on one side and the definitions on the other. When they fold the page in half, they can quiz themselves!
- Use Read & Respond to record new words in their journal. After students watch a Flocabulary video, have them complete the Read & Respond accompanying activity. Instruct them to write down any additional vocabulary words from the text passages in their journal.
- Seeing this journal grow can be hugely motivational, especially for students who might struggle in other areas of mathematics. Over time, the vocabulary journal will also serve as a comprehensive and living record of their learning.
4. Gamify vocab instruction for added fun, competition, and collaboration.
Earlier, we discussed ways to create a game for math vocabulary words used throughout class time. You can also play games with students using the math terms in new contexts to test their knowledge.
Gameplay can be one round or many. Educational games can be especially significant when students need to reset their energy level or get up and move a bit before they’re ready to sit still or quietly focus on a different kind of task. It also creates opportunities to build classroom community through friendly competition and student collaboration. These games do not take much time away from the other math learning and practice. They also don’t require many materials or time to set up.
Here are some vocabulary games and activities students can do:
- Charades: Students can work in partners or teams to act out a vocabulary word and have their teammates guess it correctly.
- Pictionary: Students can draw a vocabulary word and have their teammates guess it correctly.
- Fil-in-the-blanks: Students can come up with a fill-in-the-blank sentence for their teammates to compete or race to identify which vocab word is being defined or described.
- Flocabulary’s Vocab Game: In this game, students complete fill-in-the-blank sentences and match definitions, images, synonyms, and antonyms with the right vocabulary word. Correct answers add new instruments to build a Flocab beat! By the end of the game, students will be able to listen to a beat they’ve created by completing the fill-in-the-blanks. Flocabulary’s Vocab Game is available in every lesson.
5. Allow room for students to get creative!
“Creating” is at the very top of Bloom’s Taxonomy and is considered to require higher-order thinking skills. While most tips on this list won’t take much time to implement, this one can take longer, but we feel the investment can be well worth the time. With that in mind, you can consider a creative vocab assignment.
You can use vocabulary activities to encourage freedom, expression, and creativity. After all, we know that students can do a lot more than write sentences and draw pictures. Often, they crave opportunities to engage more creatively with their learning.
Here are a few ways to get creative with vocab instruction with students:
- Create a picture book or other visual that could teach younger students about one or more math vocab terms while telling a story.
- Create and perform a skit that uses math vocab in a real-world context.
- Create a poem that uses examples or definitions of math vocabulary words.
- Use Lyric Lab to have students create their own songs using their vocabulary words. Lyric Lab is a rhyme-writing tool available in every Flocabulary lesson. It includes a rhyming dictionary and beats that students can use to help them write their rap or poem. It also consists of a word bank that keeps track of which vocabulary words they’ve used. You can have students write songs in Lyric Lab and perform them to celebrate the end of a unit!
Start using these tips in your math classroom
Across all subject areas, vocabulary is essential to comprehension. It’s estimated that students need to know more than 90% of words in a text to understand it (Schmitt et al., 2011). In math, this means that students need opportunities to learn the language of math to understand the problems they are solving. Fortunately, there are lots of fun and easy-to-implement ways you can build students’ math vocabulary, and Flocabulary’s videos and lesson activities can help!
Interested in reading more about this topic? Check out this blog post: Tips for math instruction with Flocabulary