May I Have a Word with You?

July 22, 2010

Learning mathematics without a foundation in the language of mathematics is akin to navigating the Amazon without a guide – a journey potentially filled with hazards and confusion.

The correlation between vocabulary knowledge and achievement has been documented repeated

ly by research. Direct instruction of content vocabulary builds the essential background knowledge needed for success in mathematics. The following research emphasizes the importance of direct vocabulary instruction:

  • The ability of students to achieve in math and science is dependent on language (Buxton, 1998; Lee & Fradd, 1998).
  • All students need and benefit from direct vocabulary instruction (Gunning, 2003; Vacca, Vacca, Cove, Burkey, Lenhart, & McKeon, 2003).
  • Teaching content vocabulary using a systematic approach appears to be a powerful tool for student success (Marzano & Pickering, 2005).
  • Any intervention for the achievement of students should identify increasing students’ content vocabulary knowledge through direct instruction as a leading priority (Marzano, 2004).
  • Kindergarten students’ vocabulary size is a predictor of comprehension in middle school (Scarborough, 1998).

There are many reasons why mathematics vocabulary may be confusing to students. Some mathematics terms, such as mean, prime, or pound, have a different meaning in everyday English than in mathematics. To compound the problem, other words, such as square, round, degree, or second, have more than one meaning in mathematics. In addition, students often confuse the meanings of mathematics terms that are closely related, such as area and perimeter, factor and multiple, or numerator and denominator. Speaking the language of mathematics is a critical factor in understanding mathematics. Keeping the results of research in mind, what is an obvious action plan for educators seeking to increase student mathematics achievement? Robert Marzano advocates systematic vocabulary instruction in all content areas. So, one of the first steps in improving students’ mathematics scores is identifying essential mathematics vocabulary for each grade level or mathematics course. Teachers then need to plan and use a variety of strategies and engaging activities to teach, review, and reinforce vocabulary on a daily basis. A thorough knowledge of mathematics vocabulary provides the foundation for skill building, problem solving, and critical thinking. Armed with fundamental background knowledge, our students are equipped to begin their journey through mathematics.

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