In 15 years of teaching I have found that one of the biggest barriers to students understanding a math problem is ...they did not read the problem. Seriously. Or they got overwhelmed by the first sentence of the problem. When kids tell me that they don’t get a problem, the first thing I do is have them read it out loud to me. About half the time the kids will say, Oh....I get it, after hearing it read and they go on their merry way to start computing the answer.
The other half of the time, getting kids to work through a problem is more complex, but I have found that often the breakdown is due to vocabulary. Our math series does an excellent job of pulling out the vocabulary, defining it, and putting the word in bold, with yellow high lights. It helps, but I realized it was not cutting the mustard with some of my students. Simple words like sum (as in find the sum) have sent otherwise excellent mathematical thinkers into a tizzy. These kids can add into the millions, but the word sum, which was clearly defined and tested 7 chapters ago did not stick for whatever reason. And it freaks them out so they freeze or panic. Don’t even let me get started on words like equivalent! Sheesh! The words are defined in the glossary, and I HAVE tried to train my kiddos to look there, but we all know how that goes...
One day I was lamenting about this while in Trina’s classroom and then I saw it. Her reading/writing word wall. Important words for reading were posted and the students actually looked at those words and knew they were important. She referred to them and the students consulted the word wall. Her students could read AND spell them. Then it hit me. Why didn’t I do this for math? It was like Emeril (on the Food network) says, “BAM!” An idea was born!
So I sat down with the Common Core Standards and pulled out the important vocabulary. I made a word wall card with the word, definition, and an example if possible. I color coded the words by domain and posted the words on a wall in my classroom.
At first no one really noticed all my hard work! Then I started doing what Trina did, integrating the words into my lessons and holding kids accountable for LOOKING at the words and using them.
The results were incredible. It was like the movie Field of Dreams (If you build it, they will come) except it was If you post it on the wall, refer to it, and hold them accountable for AT LEAST looking at it, they will look. It also didn’t hurt that the words were posted right by the window, so kids who want to check the weather also get a healthy dose of math vocabulary! I referred to the words and required the kids to do the same...and they did. They might have started to refer to the wall because they got so sick of hearing me say, Did you check the word wall? Words like product and equivalent seemed much less intimidating! I put a picture of part of Trina's word wall below. Mine does not phhotograph well due to the close proximity to the window.
I liked it so much I wanted to send the wall home with my students. The only problem is the average 4th grade student doesn’t want to decorate his/her room in math vocabulary. Since my students love interactive things and they love to make things (but we only have about 15 seconds in our jam packed day to make things) I developed vocabulary flippers. These are super simple to make and the students can take them home! All you have to do is copy them (double sided), fold ‘em in half (hot dog style) and cut on the dotted lines. On the outside is the word, on the inside is the definition. My students love them. Some use them like flash cards to study. Others keep them in their interactive math toolkit to refer to. Parents like the words also, because math is waaay different than when we went to school! I have also included a geometry flipper here so you can take a gander at them and try them out! They are included in all my Common Core vocabulary packs and I have a math flipper book.
While I was at it, I made flash cards. I like to have a set or two of these to pull out when I have a few minutes or I need to support struggling students in a particular domain. Trina also made word walls for first and second grade. The word walls, flippers, and flashcards are all included in my math word wall packs for grades 3 - 6 and Trina’s grade 1 and 2 word wall! Click on the links to see these resources on out TpT stores!
In fact we loved the math packs so much we made ELA word wall as well!! Stay tuned for an upcoming blog about ELA vocabulary!