Vocab: The Foundations of Math Talk

I want to talk about vocabulary for a minute.

Specifically, I want to describe one way that can support students struggling to learn vocabulary that is necessary for effective math talk. Often times, struggling math students are willing math talkers, but the math talk is filled with pronouns (that thingy right there, you know what I mean?), hand gestures, and rough sketches.

This can make communication a bit of a chore, especially if the student is talking to another student who is also still in the beginning stages of developing understanding in that topic.

So, here’s a way that you can change the conversation a bit.

Consider this handout combined with this Google Form.

In short, the students would take a few minutes exploring different formal definitions for the vocab words you are exploring. There are always differences if you go to different sources, so by forcing them to explore a variety of interpretations, you can really help the students see that this vocabulary is about describing an idea, not memorizing a specific wording. This is important, at least to me.

Pair the students up (or group them in 3’s) and have them consider the big ideas and develop their “own-words” definitions for each vocab word. Then they plug them into the Google Form.

At that point, you’ve got a nice collection of what your class currently has taken away from their time. (And by “time”, I mean about 20 minutes from start to submission.)

As you wander around listening to the conversations, you’ll likely notice a few definitions that are coming together more slowly than others. This is inevitable.

At that point, I’d bring in Wordle. Wordle is a free tool that build word clouds. Word clouds can have a nice visual appeal and change the way a block of text looks by changing the physical size of a word based on its frequency in the text. For confusing definitions, this tool has the potential to help the students hone in on the big ideas. For my students, it was often “circle.” Most kindergartners could draw a decent circle (or at least a shape that you would guess quite quickly was supposed to be a circle.) But, that visual understanding is often as far as students get.

Want to see how well your students understand what a circle really is? Ask them why this is a lousy attempt to draw a circle. See what they say.

bad free hand circle

If your students are struggling with an idea, though, go into the Google Form responses, copy all of their definitions and paste them into a Wordle.

My third hour Geometry last year, produced this word cloud.


This isn’t going to solve all of your problems by any means, but with a visual like this, your students will have the opportunity to see that the major idea of this concept of circle revolve around the notion of a center point, a distance, and points in a curved shape. Those are major steps in the right direction when we are moving students away from a purely visual understanding of what a circle is and helping them understand the geometric properties of a circle.

Remember, the goal of learning vocabulary is to facilitate student understanding of the content. Memorizing a definition only goes so far. We have to continue to develop the means to push students to internalize the bigger ideas within the vocab so that those words then become foundations to build more sophisticated ideas.

If you feel like you’d like a tutorial of how to use Wordle, I went ahead and made one.


4 thoughts on “Vocab: The Foundations of Math Talk

  1. This is a brilliant idea for getting students to investigate and use exploratory talk. I also love how it sets up some key norms for students to use technology wisely in the classroom. Plus the Wordle is fun.

    I am definitely using this!!!

    Thank you!

    – Elizabeth (@cheesemonkeysf)

    • I appreciate the positive feedback. When you use it, let me know. Send me some pics of the word clouds!

      I love seeing how my experiences translate to other math classrooms.

  2. Hi Andrew – I love your blog post and I love Wordle! I have actually previously taken a NYS high school exam in both Algebra and Geometry, copied all of the text, and created a Wordle out of each. My students were really able to visually see which concepts and vocabulary words were emphasized the most. Thanks for your ideas, I may try this again in the classroom someday!

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