I’ve underestimated the importance of vocabulary

"Words" by Shelly on Flickr

I thought for a long time that I could get by teaching math while deemphasizing vocabulary. Obviously we would discuss the meaning of words, especially the ones that come up frequently. But I thought that if I was able to help students get a feel for the math, and show kids how to do math, without getting too caught up in what the new vocabulary meant, that would be success.

Part of this was time. Or rather to save time. Spending time helping students really understand vocabulary takes more time, especially if it’s something that is more easily shown/practiced. For example, I feel like one of my struggles with helping students understand domain and range is that I don’t do a good job at really helping them understand the words. In algebra II, if I present a new type of function to them and ask them to find the domain and range, they often struggle until they see a few examples. It’s as if they’re simply replicating the process for each type of function.

At risk of this turning into a domain and range post, let me explain a bit further. When we study quadratic functions I tell students the domain is always “all real numbers”. The student thinks, “Sweet. Whenever I see a question over domain on the quiz, I’ll just write ‘all real numbers’.” When we learn a new family of functions they have no understanding of how to find the domain, beyond “that’s something with the x values, right?”.

It’s not just that topic. In fact, the concept that propelled me to write on this topic was grading a quiz over factoring polynomials and finding zeros in polynomials. Way too many of my students don’t know the difference between factors and zeros and constantly get them confused. My most significant observation was that I find students are trying to get by with the least amount of vocabulary understanding, and I don’t think I’m helping things by demphasizing it.

Since I’m having this realization at this point in the school year, I think the fix going forward will be trying to find and develop small activities to help reinforce vocabulary. Simply emphasizing it more is a start. I’ve also done some activities, like concept maps and “functions back-to-back” which help with vocabulary understanding. Next school year I’d like to take a more systematic approach and deliberately build in vocabulary activities into each unit.

Drop your favorite vocabulary activities in the comments below or send them my way on Twitter. Thanks!

Image Credit: “Words” by Shelly on Flickr


  • Kathy Reply

    This isn’t an activity, but I really like using the Frayer model to introduce key terms. It’s the non-examples that were really eye-opening to me. I always give my students examples, but if I’m not giving non-examples, I’m not giving them the whole picture.

    • Zach Cresswell Reply

      The Frayer model has come up a few times. I know I’ve seen it before but didn’t realize how useful it might be. It’s definitely been added to my list of things to use for teaching vocab. Thanks!

  • Laurie Hailer Reply

    So glad you just blogged about this. It’s been on my mind too. We do emphasize vocab in my class, but I’m not sure I’m doing it effectively. I’ve been focusing on this lately and this gives me some good ideas to try and think about. Thanks!

  • Jon orr Reply

    We play warm up games. First: I’ve loved the game of taboo. In groups you try to get the person to say the key word without using certain “taboo” words that make it too easy. Like if the key word was zero then the list of words that are too easy might be x-intercept or root. What would you say to
    Get someone to guess the word zero if you can’t say x-intercept or root?
    Second: Pictionary-been great for assessing if kids know vocab. I split the class into two teams…anyone can guess what you are drawing. First person to guess gets points! What would you draw if your term was “Domain?”

    • Zach Cresswell Reply

      Jon, these are great ideas! Thanks so much for sharing. Not only are they useful, but they’re also fun.

      I appreciate it and thanks for reading!

  • Marissa @viemath Reply

    I just realized recently that I made that same domain mistake in my quadratics unit. I was helping a student correct a quiz and she said “Domain is just all real numbers” even though it was for a word problem about time…
    This post made me realize that I used to spend a lot of time with vocab when I taught sixth grade. Did the Frayer Models (I agree totally with Kathy), word walls, vocab parts of assessments, the whole shebang. Now that I teach high school it is just not a part of my routine. But it should be! The only thing I can think that I do is vocalize when I’m proud to hear someone using great vocab in a discussion. Thank you for the reminder!

    • Zach Cresswell Reply

      I know what you mean. I don’t think anyone in my department consistently uses activities for teaching vocabulary words, beyond defining them for students. It’s strange how it slides by the wayside when students get to high school.

  • Jim Doherty Reply

    Zach – I am curious about your reaction to a conversation from my Geometry class. Each of the past two years I have had students reflexively refer to the longest side of a triangle as its hypotenuse. I gently remind them that this is not quite correct, but we all understand what is being said. Is it your feeling that I should be a bit stricter about the vocabulary use here?

    • Zach Cresswell Reply

      That is a great question and I’m not sure I know the answer. It sounds similar to when a student says ” the domain is all the x values”. I rarely correct that, because although that definition is incomplete, we both know what we’re talking about. I’m not sure if I should be letting that slide or not.

      Maybe it would depend on the student and the situation? If it’s a one on one or small group tutoring situation I might take the time to make a point about it. If it’s a class of 30 and 7 of them have their hands raised and a kid says “hypotenuse” in the situation you described I may just let it slide. Does that make sense?

      I’m really not sure what’s right or wrong on that one.

      • Jim Doherty Reply

        I’m not sure what’s right or wrong either, so I am glad to hear I am not alone in this. My strong instinct is to let my students use words where we all know what they mean when they say it.

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