The Importance of Math Language

May 27, 2020

There is a misconception that the study of math is the study of numbers and that other than the variables found in some problems, letters and especially words don’t matter. Little emphasis is given to teaching math vocabulary and the importance of math language. More than 80% of my students cannot tell me the title or describe what they are currently studying in math. When they enter the tutoring room and I ask them what we will be working on today, the VAST majority say, “Section 9.2” or “Chapter 3.” When I ask what those sections are about, they are at a loss to even describe the process. Regardless of the topic being studied, the ability to comprehend the specific vocabulary and describe the concepts and processes using subject relevant vocabulary is fundamental to learning. It impacts a students ability to express themselves clearly. It is fundamental to test performance. If you don’t understand what the question is asking, how can you hope to answer it correctly. It provides a framework for organizing and retaining concepts. These are a few of the reasons why curricula should put more emphasis on the importance of math language. 


Math Vocabulary for Clear Expression

One of the primary purposes of vocabulary is to allow for clear, concise communication. This is particularly obvious in Geometry. If I say, “I have a four sided figure with all sides the same length” I could be describing a rhombus or a square. The only difference is in the angles. Squares have all right angles. If I know the words rhombus and square, I eliminate the need to communicate the degrees in the angles. It is understood, thereby allowing my explanations to be both clear and concise. 

One concept students frequently struggle with is the difference between an expression and an equation. You simplify an expression. You solve an equation. How can I tell them apart? An equation has an equal sign. If you don’t know what the question is looking for in terms of a final answer, you can’t be certain you have completed the problem. 

Many words have a different meaning when discussing mathematical terms. A “root” maybe short hand for square root. It is also the values with cause a function to equal zero. A root is also used when describing plants or a person’s genealogical heritage.  Degree may mean the measure of an angle or it can be the largest exponent (or sum of exponents) in a given polynomial. It can also be used when measuring temperature and level of intensity. There are also many words with similar meanings. A root is a value that causes a function to be equal to zero. We can also call that a zero or a solution. 

Learning the vocabulary and using it when discussing math questions will help a student comprehend and communicate mathematical concepts. 


Test Performance

The importance of math language is directly related to student performance on tests. Test questions may ask for least common factors, answers in integer form, prime factorizations, means, medians, modes. The list goes on and on. If I don’t know what the terms mean, I can’t answer the question. This is less of an issue when students are taking chapter tests or quizzes over small amounts of material. Since the number of topics covered is smaller, students have fewer processes to choose from and can use other context clues to help them deduce what the teacher is asking.  The importance of math language becomes apparent on semester exams or standardized tests, when concepts are mixed and students must determine what the question is asking before deciding how to solve it. 

Framework for Organizing and Retaining Concepts

When students learn math vocabulary it gives them a framework for organizing and retaining concepts. If I know what a quadrilateral is, then I can group all my more specific terms (square, rectangle, rhombus, parallelogram…) under that general topic. I can apply a compare and contrast method to distinguishing between them. If I have to learn each term independently, it is like trying to memorize the phone book. Hopefully some of you remember what a phone book is. If not it is like trying to memorize a random list of names and numbers. 

Similarly, if I know that linear equations have two variables to the first degree and their solution set is a line, I am able to distinguish them from quadratic and cubic equations. This tells me what my answer set should look like. It helps me know specific qualities of my equation and helps me to decide how I can best go about solving my problem. 

Geometry and Statistics are particularly vocabulary intense. Each shape or measurement has its own term. It is imperative that students learn these terms from the very beginning. Otherwise, the lessons start to sound like a foreign language. 


How to Include Math Vocabulary in Your Lessons

Hopefully, you now agree that math is not just about numbers. It is important to develop math vocabulary too. So, how can students do this. As students learn each new lesson, they should focus not only on how to solve the problems but also on any new words included in the lesson. They should practice using these words when discussing questions in the classroom and should also use these terms when doing their homework assignments. The directions ask me to “Solve” these problems. Are the problems quadratic equations? Are they conic sections? What steps are involved in solving the question. 

Teachers should encourage students to use math vocabulary both when asking and answering questions. Keeping a list of applicable words on the board will help students gain confidence. Make sure directions to questions include descriptive vocabulary. 


If you are interested in a copy of my Learn Math Vocabulary pdf form, simply click the link below. You will receive a pdf to start building your own math dictionary.


For more information on the importance of learning mathematical vocabulary check out the following posts:


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