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Math Vocab in the Classroom (and at home)

Math vocab

I bet you don’t even think about vocab when you are teaching Maths. Honestly, when I started my teaching career vocabulary was something I only ever really thought of when I was helping children with English as a Second Language learn. Maybe if I spoke to Speech and Language Specialists. And maybe, occasionally, possibly, when teaching phonics.

But today I want to write about vocabulary in Maths.

Isn’t vocabulary something we just acquire?

Shockingly, no. It actually takes a concerted effort for humans to accumulate a wide range of vocab. In fact if a parent (or care taker) talks to their child during normal daily activity the child is exposed to 1-2,000 words an hour. When parents talk with their children just chatting children up to the age of 2 knew 300 more words than their peers who hadn’t had those interactions.

Math vocab

Taken from

Studies also show that “language heavy” maths lessons create barriers for learners accessing their learning. This means that before the kids even try the maths, the inability to understand what they need to do stops them even starting to try. This is something that has been proven not just for children with English as an additional language, but also all learners with low reading skills.

Ok, so it’s important for children to get a broad vocabulary. And….?

Teachers often encourage a widening of word knowledge in SPaG lessons with dictionary work, alphabetical order, word meaning and looking at etymology. I highly recommend all of these activities. I love doing these activities. It will most certainly help with reading and writing work. Go for it!

However, although you are helping children with scientific language, new words to do with your topics, and unfamiliar words encountered in stories how often are you approaching this in Maths? Do the parents know the terms you are using so they can reinforce them at home? Or even understand what the children are talking about during Maths homework or home learning sessions?

My inkling is a no to all of the above. And don’t worry you are not alone!

It is not something I ever thought about until I did a lesson on word problems.

Not one of the children could give me more than “add” and “addition” as words that meant adding. Combine? I ventured. Altogether? In total? Sum? Honestly, I was shocked. And then I realised who had ever explicitly taught them these words? The dropping them into the lesson as I teach method obviously hadn’t worked.

math vocab

I had to go back to the drawing board and teach an entire session on the many words that mean add or subtract. I made a sorting activity with these words and they worked in pairs telling me “why are we reading in maths?” and having lively debates with their learning partners about whether phrases such as “the difference between” could possibly mean take away. I will never forget the discussion that took place when I read out “minus” and they had a long chat about whether they had met minus in another year group at lunchtime…

At a Parents’ Meeting one very honest mum told me that she couldn’t help her child with the maths homework because she didn’t understand some of the words we were using. She was a parent using English as her third (!) language and I totally felt for her. But it got me wondering how many other home supporters also felt lost. You can google an unknown word in a book do you automatically think to do that for a Mathematical term?

Enough! I get it! What now?


  • sharing vocab for each new Maths topic in the same way you would for a new overall Topic such as Vikings or Fairy Tales.
  • Create a wordbank and display it for the kids to refer to when they need it.
  • Don’t overwhelm them with all the words at once!
  • Spend some time in the lesson going over new words or revising words they may not remember.


Sign up for the zoedidthat emails and you will receive my completely free Math vocab sheets as a thank you. Free to use in your classroom and share with parents/carers so everyone can use the same lingo. They cover Addition and Subtraction, Multiplication and Division, 2d shape, Position and Direction, Place Value and Weighing, Measuring, Temperature in Length (in US and UK versions).


Just print and teach!

Math vocab

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