Best Practices for Teaching Math to Unique Learners: Math Vocabulary

Kelley Spainhour

Special Education Consultant

Talking, writing, and reading about math are powerful ways for students to develop their mathematical proficiency. Explicitly teaching these language skills should not be reserved solely for humanities teachers. “Why not?” you might ask. “Don’t math teachers have enough on their plates with the amount of content to cover these days?”

Instead of lamenting “I don’t have time to teach writing in math,” let’s explore the idea that teaching students to use math vocabulary correctly helps them understand the math they are doing on a deeper conceptual level. It’s a mindset shift to prioritize talking, writing, and reading in math, but it opens up a world of opportunity for both teachers and students.

talking about math

Talking about Math

Talking about math in a clear, coherent fashion is challenging for many students. Even some of the highest-achieving ones struggle to answer questions like “How did you get your answer?” or “Why did you choose that strategy?”

Verbalizing math processes is difficult in part because math is its own language with specific vocabulary, unique symbols, and numbers. It is hard to learn a new language! Communicating about math requires not only an understanding of the math concept, but also a strong vocabulary base, the ability to think flexibly, and fluency with numbers, symbols, words, and diagrams. Yet, research shows that talking about math is critically important to mathematical success. In fact, a student’s knowledge of math vocabulary can predict their math performance.

Encouraging students to verbalize their decisions and solutions to math problems is an evidence-based practice for students with learning disabilities and learning difficulties in math. It is an essential part of the scaffolded instruction process.

One of the most helpful ways to practice math discourse is by offering students verbal sentence starters to help structure their conversation. Here are some examples:

  • My answer is ____, and I figured it out by ____
  • I chose to (add/subtract/multiply/divide) because ____
  • The first step I took was ____
  • I still have a question about ____
  • The strategy I tried first was ____
  • Another strategy that could work is ____
  • This solution makes sense because ____
  • My strategy is like/is different from yours because ____

Sentence starters provide the scaffold needed by many students with learning disabilities as well as English language learners (ELLs). Start with simple, straightforward questions, and focus on applying one or two sentence starters at a time. As students become more proficient with using math vocabulary to explain their thinking, begin to introduce higher-order thinking questions. You might start with “What did you do first to solve this problem?” and scaffold up to “How do you know you are correct?”

To incorporate math talk into your class routine, you could choose three to five minutes at a particular point in your lesson every day. Or, practice on specific days of the week or certain times in the unit when you know you can devote more time to a longer conversation. Students may also practice talking about their math with each other. When the stakes aren’t as high—they are talking to a friend instead of to the whole class—they may be emboldened to try out new sentences and vocabulary words.

Students with expressive language challenges can still participate in and benefit from math discourse. Use a symbol-based communication board or set of pictorial representations to guide students in the expression of their math thinking.

Let’s look at one example of how to do this using the following word problem:

Diamond made three friendship bracelets, and her friend Andrea made two friendship bracelets. How many did the girls make altogether?

Students may solve this problem with an addition math sentence and/or with visual modeling. Prompt your nonverbal students or those with expressive language challenges to identify the operation used to solve this problem. Show them four notecards, one for each operation symbol (+, –, ×, and ÷), and ask students to select the one needed for the problem. This differentiation of talking in math class still requires them to reflect on the purpose of the four operations and match the correct one to the specific word problem.

math manipulatives

Writing about Math

Writing helps students clarify and organize their thoughts. It provides opportunities to synthesize math concepts through careful reasoning because of the slower pace that writing requires.

Set students up for success with their math writing by creating a text-rich environment throughout your classroom. Post a laminated number line from -10 to 10 on individual student desks. Update your bulletin boards with current math vocabulary and accompanying examples. Hang anchor charts with purposeful use of bold colors and clear visuals in easily accessible places. Keep multiplication tables, place-value charts, fraction strips, or any other relevant reference chart posted throughout the school year.

Students with learning disabilities will benefit from a variety of scaffolds to help structure their writing. Use graphic organizers, word banks, and sentence starters to help them get started. Here are a few examples of sentence starters you may use:

  • Another strategy that might work is _____
  • I checked my work by _____
  • I got stuck on this problem because _____
  • I need help with the _____ part of the problem

Let’s say students are presented with the following word problem:

Jace is excited about his birthday party next week! He made five LEGO creations, one for each friend who will come to his party. It took Jace ten minutes to make each one. How long did it take Jace to make all of the LEGO creations for his friends?

Students can solve this problem with repeated addition, multiplication, or visual modeling. Here are a few ways to prompt them to write about their solution:

  • How did you figure out this problem?
  • Explain the steps you took to solve this problem.
  • Is there another way to solve this problem? If so, how?
stack of books

Reading about Math

Teaching math through stories serves multiple purposes.

First, reading books like The Greedy Triangle or Sir Cumference and the First Round Table is a fun way to engage students at the start of a new unit. Before any formula or problem set is presented, they are drawn to intriguing themes like adventure, friendship, and overcoming challenges in their math book. Students will want to learn more about polygons and circumference, or whatever the content focus is. Math stories provide real and relevant context for otherwise abstract ideas. They also model proper math vocabulary use as students prepare to talk and write about their lessons.

Second, incorporating literacy into math class creates opportunities for interdisciplinary teaching and learning, and therefore deeper, more meaningful connections. Interdisciplinary teaching reinforces foundational knowledge, helps students apply new skills, and encourages critical-thinking skills. Let’s say students are working on identifying character traits in their language arts class. As their math teacher, you can reinforce this literacy goal through a read-aloud of a book with math concepts that support your objective of the day or week. The result is that students see their language arts goal in a new context and have an opportunity to practice it. This activity also makes math less intimidating and presents it in a new way.

Teaching math is a challenging and rewarding job. Watching something “click” for the first time for a student in your math class is priceless. What a relief it is when the hours of lesson planning and individualized interventions finally make a difference. If you haven’t tried incorporating talking, writing, and reading about math yet, it is well worth your time. With practice, your students will grow in confidence and the ability to understand and solve math problems.

About the Author

Kelley Spainhour is a special education professional with a decade of teaching and leadership experience. She is passionate about the unique needs of children with medical needs and enjoys collaborating in multidisciplinary contexts. Kelley currently serves as a special education consultant and writer.