The Language of Mathematics

I often sit with students during breaks or after school, as most of us do, teaching and re-teaching concepts and skills that are not well understood. For some students it takes 5 minutes to clear up commonly held misconceptions while others require much more attention. In either case, I am always amazed how misconceptions are generated as a result of not understanding the language and notation of mathematics.

Case in point: I was working with a math studies student yesterday on the language of sets. We were solving a problem involving C’B. Making a long story short, her understanding of the notation C’ (not C) was to just eliminate C and only consider the elements in B.  Adding the word “in” (not in C), clarified the meaning of the language and her understanding. Now this is subtle but that is the point. I know I am guilty of saying “not C” but never really considered that that some students were possibly gleaning some alternative meaning.

I often wonder whether language teachers can offer strategies to overcome language difficulties  in mathematics but then I also wonder whether the language of mathematics is in a class of its own (language teachers would think so). Comprehension is the key. Understanding promotes success. How do language teachers teach interpretation and elicit meaning in new terms?

I think we can learn a lot from our EAL/ESL colleagues. Virginia Rojas (EAL specialist) once told me to test vocabulary and meaning in mathematics both formatively and summatively. How many of us do something like this? I have used Word Walls effectively and often combine each word with a visual representation especially in  a geometry unit. From a Web 2.0 perspective, Wallwisher is a useful (and free!) site to post sticky notes which describe meaning using words, links, visuals and videos. This worked very well for me as an introduction to the language of algebra in my grade 8 class.

What strategies are you using to promote language acquisition and language comprehension in mathematics?



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