Yes, you not knowing the vocab really *is* the problem.

I got into a heated discussion with a group of students today.

M1: “But Miss Roberts, it’s not the vocab that’s the problem. I just don’t know what the substitution method is.”

Me: “But you do know how to do it, you just don’t know the process that’s being named.”

With variations going back and forth for a few minutes. When we finally pulled out a notebook and looked at the steps and examples, I was right. They knew how to do it. They were still adamant that the vocab was not the problem.

Then another student at the same table chimed in.

M2: “It’s so hard to remember all of these words. Why are there three different names for three different ways to solve the same dumb problem?”

I didn’t really know what to say to that then, and I still only sort of do now. To address the easy part of that, it wouldn’t make sense if there was only one word that described three different methods; if someone tells you to “cook some vegetables” are you going to steam them? Boil them? Grill them? Roast them? “Cook some vegetables” is the kitchen equivalent of “solve this system of equations”; there are multiple ways to get to the end goal. Also we have done problems where they’ve argued and been engaged. Sometimes you just have to practice the boring stuff; no one really likes doing suicides and shooting free throw after free throw after free throw in basketball practice but they do it almost every day anyway to improve their game.

But none of that still addresses what I believe to be the bigger underlying issue – my students don’t know their math vocab. Is that because I don’t teach it enough? Or because I don’t assess it enough? Is it because we don’t make enough connections between related terms? Is it because they have a disability that makes it difficult for them to comprehend words? Is it because they think it’s dumb and don’t care enough to learn it?

I try my best never to say things like “cancel out” and we don’t use the term “FOIL” in my classroom. We do Frayer models, compare and contrast, use mnemonic devices occasionally, practice picking important information from story problems, and more. And none of it seems to stick. During our SOL review they’re going to have a vocab-related exit ticket each day. I don’t know that that will actually help this late in the year but we’re going to try it. And I’ve already decided that each assessment next year will have at least one vocabulary related question on it, hopefully encouraging me to do some more “always, sometimes, never” activities outside of Geometry. Maybe someday I’ll get students to not only remember math vocab but to understand it.


A high school math teacher trying to help her students find the world and find math through math.

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