The Vocabulary of Math for Elementary School

Hello SLPs!

I hope you're all having a wonderful week so far. Today's guest contributor is Margo Kinzer Courter, MBA, MA, CCC-SLP, BCS-CL. Margo is a practicing speech-language pathologist specializing in the impact of a language disorder on learning. She is board certified in child language and language disorders. She is also a national presenter on topics of language and learning and an adjunct professor teaching a masters level language methods in special education course. She is also the author of several texts as well as See It and Say It Visual Phonics. Enjoy today's post!

The Vocabulary of Math for Elementary School

In Episode 2 of The Speech Link podcast, "Dynamic Ways to Increase Vocabulary and Retrieval: From Basic Concepts to Academic Success,” we discussed the Three Tiers of Vocabulary (Beck, McKeown, and Kucan, 2002). These include Tier I – basic vocabulary, Tier II – high frequency words, and Tier III – curriculum based vocabulary. We looked at the research regarding the impact that difficulties with receptive and expressive vocabulary will have on academic success. Strategies based on evidence based practice were provided for each Tier. In this blog, let’s take this a step further and look at the Vocabulary of Math for Tier II and Tier III. There are often words that the student knows as Tier II everyday words but doesn’t understand that these words mean something different when used as Tier III math curriculum words. Students with learning differences often have difficulty developing the vocabulary that is needed for success in math. This blog will provide the language of math for elementary to serve as the foundation that can be built upon for middle school and high school.

Tier II to Tier III Vocabulary

There are many words that are used in everyday language (Tier II) that mean something different when applied to math (Tier III). Here is an activity that you or the teacher can use to assist students in understanding the multiple meaning of words used in math.

Activity to Assist Students in Understanding Vocabulary

from Everyday Use to Math Use

Organize the class in small groups and explain that each group is about to receive a simple set of instructions written on an index card. They are to follow the instructions without consulting with you or with students in other groups. Distribute to half of the groups in the classroom index cards with the following instructions written on the cards: "English assignment: Come up with an expression containing a product." Distribute index cards to the other groups in the classroom with the following set of instructions: "Math assignment: Come up with an expression containing a product." Give students a few minutes to confer with their fellow group members and to collectively write an expression in their notes or on the back of the index card.

Visual Strategies

An individual activity could be providing students with words that have multiple meanings from everyday vocabulary to math vocabulary. Provide the students with the multiple meaning word and have them determine the meaning and draw a picture. This can easily be differentiated by providing the word and a user friendly definition. Then the student can draw a picture to go with the meaning.

Vocabulary Strategy for Comparing Tier II with Tier III Use

Here is another example of a way for the students to determine the meaning of a word from Tier II to the meaning in Tier III. The student is given a user friendly definition of the word in Tier II and in Tier III. The student then develops a sentence to show the meaning of the word for each. The student then decides if the word has the same meaning in Tier III as it does in Tier II. A picture could also be added to this analysis.

Words Associated with Basic Math Functions

There are also several words that are used for the basic math functions of addition, subtraction, multiplication, and division. The following chart from achievement strategies provides several of these words that should be targeted to make sure that students understand the meaning.

This pdf can be downloaded from:


In order for students to be successful in math, they must understand the vocabulary of math. By providing the student with strategies for success, the vocabulary of math will get the student one step closer to success in math!

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