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Teaching Math Vocabulary

Updated: Jun 18, 2020

There is a massive assumption in math teaching, which stems from poor reading instruction, that is causing dyslexic students to struggle in math when they otherwise would not. This is the assumption that students understands what mathematical symbols mean.

The basics of math symbols are: 0 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 + - =. We assume, as teachers and parents, that our kids know what each of these symbols represents. As the student progresses in math, we assume that as new symbols are introduced, the student understands what these symbols mean. This assumption is not only wrong; it is dangerous. For example, the other day, I was working with a bright student who, on a conceptual basis, does not have any math difficulties. However, she is struggling in math at school. She was given the problem and asked to state the number sentence in words. She had had ZERO clue as to what meant. She struggled with even < and >. On an even more simple basis, have you ever witnessed a student, or your child, add when they were supposed to subtract or vise versa? How about when a student can calculate 9+1 but is unable to do that problem vertically?



We must teach students what each of the symbols used in math means as we teach the mathematical concepts. These symbols need to be taught in a very explicit, systematic, and multi-sensory manner. Think of this:

  1. Show the student the symbol, preferable color-coded

  2. State what that symbol means

  3. Have the student write that symbol and meaning in a math dictionary

Then, when they are working on a problem, have them touch and say the equation.

For the equation:

9 + 1= the student would say, “nine plus one is” or “nine plus one equals.”

For the equation:

6 ≤ x the student would say, “ six is less than or equal to x.”

The act of having the student touch and say the symbols will help them process what the symbols mean and a lot of confusion and errors can be avoided. But first, we need to explicitly teach what all these mathematical symbols mean so our students can process. Otherwise, we might as well be showing them written gibberish.

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