One of the posters that is most helpful to my students in class has been the chart of mathematical vocabulary words used for the different operations: addition, subtraction, multiplication, and division. It is really useful for students when they are trying to decode a word problem. I have even from time to time photocopied it so they can glue the mathematical vocabulary in their notebook.
I wanted to dig a little deeper into this topic, so I looked into the different state and national standardized tests students take in third or fourth grade. I discovered that there are many different phrases, which hadn’t naturally come to my mind, that are used on these tests.
Something that surprised me was the number of times the word total was used. It is a very high-frequency word that students often come in contact with in the classroom. Of course, we know that total means in all, but here is a list of the different ways total is used on various tests:
The total number (of)
Total amount of time
Spend a total of
Total amount of _____ used in _____
The total that remains after _____
Took a total of
Find the total area
Has a total of
The total number he gave away
The total number he has
The total saved each week
The total of a (statistical) table
Different ways to find the total
Another interesting thing that was a new idea to me regarding total is that it is the preferred word to sum. It has been suggested* that the word sum not be used in the early grades as not to confuse students with its homonym some. Some and sum are actually antonyms! Homonyms that are antonyms. You have got to love English.
An important word that can be confusing is the word each. Depending on how it is used, it can indicate multiplication or division. “I worked on this project for two hours each day” versus “How many cookies can I give each person?” Students need to think flexibly about the meaning of mathematical vocabulary before deciding on an operation. Here are some ways the word each was used on the various tests:
Each person has
Each _____ costs the same
Each _____ lasts _____ hours
The same number of _____ in each _____
Each row has the same number of _____
I encourage you to take inventory of how well your students understand mathematical vocabulary. If you find that students are struggling, start incorporating reviews at the beginning or end of each lesson. Also, look for those opportunities to point out easily confused math words while instruction is taking place.
Always remember that vocabulary development is a vital component of learning across all subject areas. It doesn't matter if a student is learning a new grammar rule or basic math formula, word knowledge will impact comprehension.