Why Language Matters in Mathematics Education

Math language is the term used to describe the various jargon and academic language required to understand mathematical concepts. Math language is crucial to learning any math concept and is the surprising reason that many students struggle with mathematics both inside and outside the classroom.

A student may understand a math concept but lack the knowledge of math language. For instance, this student may conceptually understand what it means to add something, but if he doesn’t understand the word add itself, he will not be able to demonstrate what it means physically. In other words, this student will not be able to show you during playtime that two blocks plus one block adds together to make three blocks.

Why math language matters

Many children struggle with math because they fail to grasp the math language first. Learning the academic language associated with any subject is part of every learning experience. Math is full of language. Add, subtract, odd, even, fraction, decimal, greater than, equal, and multiply are just a few examples of the mathematical terms used by students in elementary school.

Because STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics) subjects are not traditionally associated with language, these fields of study can be especially difficult for students when the teacher does not emphasize the associated academic language.

Some researchers argue that mathematics not only contains mathematical language but that the subject of mathematics is a language itself. A language is defined as a system of communication with vocabulary, grammar, and syntax. To some, mathematics meets this definition of a language.

English Language Learners and math language

Learning mathematical jargon is difficult for many students but can prove especially difficult for English Language Learners (ELL’s). Students who are trying to learn academic content while simultaneously learning English are at the greatest disadvantage when it comes to acquiring content-related language. ELL’s generally learn social English (Basic Interpersonal Communication Skills) within six months to a year of moving to an English-speaking country because acquiring social English can prove necessary to function in American society.

However, ELL’s can take much longer to learn academic language (Cognitive Academic Language Proficiency), sometimes never reaching academic language fluency even after five to seven years of exposure. When teaching your students math language, it is especially important to target English Language Learners with specific interventions to help them acquire academic language along with the rest of their peers.

How to implement math language awareness in your classroom

All students in your classroom must be frequently exposed to math language. But, before any child can learn abstract terms such as divide or sum, he must learn foundational content language. Even beginning in preschool, students can be taught terms such as flew away, which implies subtraction, and came over, which implies addition. These early math language concepts can help solidify content and language concepts in young children.

During each lesson, spend as much time on the math language as you do teaching math concepts. The academic language is critical to the concepts, and vice versa. By emphasizing math language in your classroom, you could be preventing mathematical deficiencies in your students for years to come.

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