How Do I Improve My Math Vocabulary?

Angela Farrer

Improving your math vocabulary can be accomplished through several proactive strategies designed to increase your understanding and retention of the specialized words used in mathematics. These techniques include the creation of glossaries and word banks, the use of your writing skills to communicate vocabulary applications in your own words, and the help of creating your own study aids based on your strongest learning style. A proper grasp of the language of mathematics is often considered essential to successful problem-solving at any math level, and one of the most common barriers to understanding written word problems is a missing grasp of the prerequisite math vocabulary.

An algorithm.
An algorithm.

Certain math terms related to various operations can be explained in more than one way. Common examples are the substitution of the words "take away" or "minus" for subtraction or of "sums" and "plus" for addition. The same informal terminology can frequently appear in more advanced problems from algebra to calculus; creating a clearly written math vocabulary word bank can often help in eliminating confusion when you encounter these word variations. One way to begin this word bank is to divide a piece of paper into two columns: one for formal math terms and the other for their corresponding informal variations; you will generally keep adding to this list as you continue to study new math chapters and concepts.

A child doing math homework.
A child doing math homework.

Once you have a working math word bank, another method of strengthening your vocabulary skills is to paraphrase your assigned word problems. Many educators have shown that passive reading alone does relatively little in terms of improving your math vocabulary. Rewriting each part of a word problem indicates taking a more active role in solving it. Your word bank can be used as a handy reference tool, and communication with your instructor is also a helpful source of feedback for this type of vocab exercise.

If you are a math student with strengths in visual learning, you can often do well with organizing unfamiliar math vocabulary into charts such as Venn diagrams or color-coded tables. You may alternatively learn better by hearing words out loud, so you can easily create your own spoken audio versions of your math terms with an inexpensive digital recorder or with a headset and one of the basic sound-recording applications that come built into many computer desktop platforms. When you find that you learn best with hands-on approaches, you can create either hand-drawn or digital mind maps with drawing software to organize related math terms with their varied definitions.

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