Monday, July 6, 2015

Math Word Walls: Unlocking the Language of Mathematics

A former colleague of mine loves to tell the story about when she was administering a high stakes test and the question instructed the students to, “Draw a table to display this data.” Her determined student drew a Pottery Barn catalogue worthy DINNER TABLE, with each dish containing one the of numbers from the data she was meant to display. While one would want to give this kid points for style and creativity, I imagine the people grading the test were not so amused. 

This story made me realize that instruction in math vocabulary could mean the difference between a child “getting it” or missing it. Math is no longer just about being able to compute an answer correctly. It is about reading and understanding the language of mathematics. 

Our math series does an excellent job of pulling out the vocabulary, defining it, and putting the word in bold, with yellow highlights. It helps, but I realized it was not cutting the mustard with some of my students. Simple words like sum (as in “find the sum”) have sent otherwise excellent mathematical thinkers into a tizzy. These kids can add into the millions, but the word sum, which was clearly defined and tested 7 chapters ago did not stick for whatever reason. And it freaks them out so they freeze or panic. Don’t even let me get started on words like equivalent! Sheesh! The words are defined in the glossary, and I HAVE tried to train my kiddos to look there, but we all know how that goes.
Also, my struggling readers often struggle with the words and even though they might be able to solve the problem, they miss it because of the vocabulary. 

A few years ago this inspired me to sit down with the Common Core Standards and find the important vocabulary. I made a word wall card with the word, definition, and an example if possible. I color coded the words by domain and posted the words on a wall in my classroom. 

At first when I posted the words no one really noticed all my hard work. I soon realized that was sort of my fault because I was not referring to the wall or the words. If a kid asked me what a factors was, I just told the kid. This prompted me to start doing what I have seen so many primary teachers do with their word walls. I started integrating the words into my lessons and held kids accountable for LOOKING at the words and using them. 

The results were incredible. It was like the movie Field of Dreams (“If you build it, they will come”) except it was “If you post it on the wall, refer to it, and hold them accountable for AT LEAST looking at it, they will look”. It also didn’t hurt that the words were posted right by the window, so kids who want to check the weather also get a healthy dose of math vocabulary! I referred to the words and required the kids to do the same...and they did. They might have started to refer to the wall because they got so sick of hearing me say, “Did you check the word wall?” Words like product and equivalent seemed much less intimidating!

It worked so well, I wanted to send the wall home with my students. The only problem is the average 4th grade doesn’t want to decorate his/her room in math vocabulary. Since my students love interactive things and they love to make things (but we only have about 15 seconds in our jam packed day to make things) I developed vocabulary flippers to match the word wall. These are super simple to make and the students can take them home! All you have to do is copy them (double sided),  fold ‘em in half (hot dog style) and cut on the dotted lines. On the outside is the word, on the inside is the definition. My students love them.   Some use them like flash cards to study. Others keep them in their interactive math notebook to refer to. Parents like the words also, because math is waaay different than when we went to school! I have also included a free geometry set here so you can take a gander at it and try it out! 

I made word walls for grades 3 - 6 and my friend Trina who is a primary expert, made math word walls for 1st and 2nd grade. They are in our TPT Stores.



  1. I have tried in the past to use a math word wall and find myself doing the same thing, NOT using it. Thanks so much for the reminder of how to implement it better in the classroom by actually refering back to it!

  2. It sounds simple, but I really had to hold my students accountable for USING the word wall!