A Lesson Starter: Unraveling the Vocabulary

“You’ll know kids mastered a subject if they have the vocabulary to talk about it intelligently.”

This comment was part of a recent post “It’s Building Kids’ Vocabulary, Stupid” published by Educationnews.org.

Vocabulary is critical, especially in math. Look at the language used in the Common Core standards – you have to be a mathematician to understand what each one means. To clarify the purposely brief standards, teachers in Tennessee are being provided with EU’s, essential understandings. EU’s are great, but when I tried to translate one recently, in order to write it in a way a student could understand as the goal for the day’s lesson, the vocabulary was still too dense.

A Lesson Starter: Unraveling the Vocabulary

Let’s say you have told your students that the goal for the day is factoring polynomials. You have given your students a key task designed to give them conceptual understanding about the topic. You have asked them to think about the problem and decide what they think they will need to do to work toward a solution. Then you realize that they don’t recognize the words factor (don’t scoff- my 10th graders didn’t) and they have no clue what a polynomial is.

Instead of defining the words for them, or having them copy some useless definitions out of the back of the text, let them spend some time defining what they think the problem is asking them to do.

Next, have them share in small groups and agree on the actions/terminology the problem requires. Then bring it into a whole group discussion. Have the students agree as a group on the terminology they are going to use as they work their way through the assignment. Use clarifying and summarizing questions as necessary to allow the students to come up with a common vocabulary.

Don’t worry if the students don’t use the formal math vocabulary for the assignment. It’s okay not to. In fact, allowing them to use familiar vocabulary will boost their confidence for when they need to tackle other, less familiar projects.

Once the assignment comes to a close, draw the students back to the formal math vocabulary. Ask them to decide how what they just did matches up with the formal definition. Let them come up with valid connections and understandings.

Then have them explain it to another student. Listen during this process. Ask some students to share their understandings with the class. If there are different ways of explaining, (which there usually are!) have students indicate which way they understand best. It is not a contest, it is a chance to show children that there are lots if different ways to come to understandings.

Finally give the students another problem with instructions in the same formal vocabulary that they just defined. This will allow an even stronger connection to the newly learned term.

(I like word walls, so the new term would definitely be added at this point.)

Dear reader, I would love to know if you were able to use this idea in your classroom.


4 thoughts on “A Lesson Starter: Unraveling the Vocabulary

  1. Dear Clara!
    I experienced this system on myself being pupil in 60 ies. Later, as a teacher, I also tried to care that the relevant image of notion or operation would be formed in a simplest and direct way, so formal definition was formed on the basis of this image. I insist on correct form of using definition, since changing words order you may get different connotations or meaning. What about mutual teaching and explanations, I sometimes create the situation of conversation by phone. This very method I use when teaching my grandson, who lives in another town.

    1. The idea of creating a conversation type approach is a good one. Especially in small groups, it would reinforce students listening to other comments before they speak. Thank you for your comment.

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