Building Vocabulary in Math Class

A draft I didn’t realize I had made me #pushsend today! This is from pre-school planning in August!

Math has a lot of vocabulary terms and for the past three years I’ve pretty consistently complained about how my students can’t solve problems because they don’t know what the words mean without really doing anything about it. During planning time today, I asked one of my colleagues (English teacher currently pursuing a master’s in literacy) to help out. Here are some suggestions she gave with what I hope are correct examples… I made them math examples when I could think of one easily!

Quad(Tri) Text

  1. Introduce math term using pictures or video first.
  2. Read a narrative passage that uses this math term out loud to the students (they can read along with you if you’d like, but she emphasized it’s important for the teacher to read it out loud in context).
  3. Read the math term in informational text passage (textbook, article, etc.).
  4. The fourth step of this would be to read a longer text (like a short story, novel, study,  full article, etc.) but this would most likely be skipped for most secondary math terms.

Word Lines

  1. Determine what you want to be ranking/sorting. Type up and print out.
  2. Create top and bottom spots (usually greatest to least) in a physical location in your classroom.
  3. Pass out cards to students. Have them sort themselves on the word line with guidance from the class.
  4. EXAMPLES: sorting probability words (generally, usually, impossible, guaranteed, etc.) from a probability of 0 to 1; sorting types of polynomials (linear, quartic, etc.) from highest degree to lowest.

Shades of Meaning

  1. Have paint chips of one color varying in shade.
  2. Choose a basic vocabulary word/term. Make this the lightest shade paint chip.
  3. Determine synonyms for the word and rank them on intensity. The darker the shade, the higher the intensity of the word.
  4. EXAMPLE: This is easier to see than read about.

Four Square

  1. This is basically a Frayer model but you can change the titles of each box to suit your needs.
  2. EXAMPLE: If you were teaching about Federalism, you could use “definition, people, events, and beliefs” as your boxes instead of “definition, characteristics, example, and non-example”

Concept Mapping

  1. Choose a broad vocab term. Place this at the top of or in the middle of a piece of paper.
  2. Identify the key concepts that directly relate to that term and branch them out from the original concept.
  3. Repeat step two for each branch as needed.
  4. EXAMPLES: A nice blog post from Tina on concept maps with a few pictures.

Semantic Feature Analysis

  1. Choose a broad vocab term/category.
  2. Determine subgroups. Identify characteristics of each subgroup.
  3. Create a table with subgroups in the far left column and characteristics in the top row. Check off each box that holds an always true statement (could use for A/S/N also!)
  4. EXAMPLES: A partially filled out example on quadrilaterals. I’m imagining you could do this for features of graphs as well.


  1. Select a broad vocab term. Create a list of terms that relate to the vocab term.
  2. Cut out all of the terms, including the broad vocab term, and have enough copies for each group.
  3. Have students group the terms based on similarities, looking for the broad vocab term (label) and creating titles for each group (related to their reasoning for creating the groups).
  4. EXAMPLES: An example of how to do it independently/without cutting out cards.


  1. Choose a vocab term. Identify two examples and one non-example of the term. Write these in a random order in a list.
  2. Students circle the vocab term, cross out the non-example, and leave the two examples as-is.
    1. f(x) = ax² + bx + c
    2. g(s) = |14s – 6|
    3. h(t) = 5
    4. {Polynomial}

General Tips

  1. Have discussions involving the math term.
  2. Take virtual field trips (less possible in math).
  3. Provide context clues.
  4. Teach root words.
  5. Provide examples and non-examples.
  6. Use kid-friendly definitions.
  7. Students need 8 exposures (them actually using the word) to a word before it’s a part of their vocabulary.
  8. DO NOT ask if students know what a term means – an incorrect response sticks as the correct response.
  9. Require students to use correct spelling as often as possible.
  10. Teaching Tier 2 words (academic but content-neutral: characteristics, accurately, illustrates, etc.) has the greatest effect on students’ vocabulary and reading comprehension skills.

This was from a 15ish minute conversation around lunch time on the topic. There are examples of each out there – some ideas are definitely easier to adapt to secondary math than others. I will change this list based on what I find useful in my classroom!

Moral of the story though: USE YOUR RESOURCES – English teachers and reading specialists (and elementary teachers) are a wealth of knowledge when it comes to vocabulary and are almost always willing to help as it’ll make their lives easier too!


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

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