Math Vocabulary/Impact of Language, Memory, and Sequential Ordering

Mastering the language of mathematics is much like mastering a foreign language. The content is both new and cumulative, as new learning enhances abilities by complementing and expanding upon what a student already knows.

As students progress in math, they must grapple with many complex verbal explanations and a growing vocabulary of terms that are rarely used outside math situations, e.g., trapezoid and dividend. For this reason, a student’s language skills and comfort with new vocabulary can have a great impact on mathematical development.

The ongoing acquisition and use of math language is also aided by a student’s ability to read and listen carefully, to organize terms in memory and recall those terms as needed, to follow sequences of rules and procedures, and to use language abilities to enhance understanding of math concepts.

Here are some strategies to help develop and strengthen students’ use of math language.

Helpful Hints

  • Make reading about math an activity you and your class do together. Math vocabulary can be reinforced by reading biographies of mathematicians and inventors, books about the history of math, fictional stories with characters that work with math, news and sports stories involving math, etc.  
  • Have students use their new math vocabulary words to teach their parents, younger siblings, younger students, or peers about the concepts they have learned.  
  • Have students keep a personal math vocabulary book in which they record new math terms. Have them actively link the new terms to their existing knowledge by drawing pictures next to terms to have a visual representation, by showing examples that match and don’t match the concept, by creating a flowchart of terms or diagram of pictures to show how a concept fits in with other math concepts, etc.