Gail Anderson, Lansdale, PA firstname.lastname@example.org
Are there any other West Wing fans out there? My husband and I had date night every Wednesday at 9 pm for all eight years of that show’s run. I remember one episode where President Jed Bartlett was criticized for using “big words.” His opponent claimed that Bartlett was showing off, and that he was too far removed from the public to be a good leader for them. I once received a similar criticism from a student in my high school math class, which made me stop to think about how I communicate with my students. It was certainly not out of pride or trying to “show off” to my students that I insisted on using the rich vocabulary I have gleaned from years of reading good literature and studying mathematics (and watching West Wing). It is who I am. It is a reflection of what I have learned, and of the wonderful opportunities I have been blessed with in my life to be exposed to a wide variety of people, places, and things. My students also deserve the opportunity to build their communication skills and develop a rich vocabulary. This is best done by exposing them to rich, meaningful vocabulary, not by shying away from it or “dumbing down” our word choices.
I was delighted to read Pamela Propst’s post, Math and Vocabulary, on the Teacher Research Corps (TRC) webpage, (February 4, 2021). She poses the question, “Is vocabulary more important than you anticipated?” She goes on to describe part of her journey to move away from the up-front approach to teaching vocabulary (handing out lists and quizzes) to the natural incorporation of vocabulary in the students’ learning. After some initial complaints from students, she reports wonderful success. She challenged them by exposing them to the vocabulary, using it as she circulated during teamwork, and asking them to intentionally begin to use the vocabulary in their notes and journal responses as well. She noticed an improvement in students’ communication of mathematical concepts. And, perhaps more importantly, her students noticed the improvement! Learning and using good vocabulary doesn’t only help with precise communication, it breaks down barriers for students entering the mathematics. Probst writes, “Since they have been using the vocabulary for each chapter more consistently, many have mentioned that breaking down word problems has become easier.” Do not shy away from using “big words.” Use words you want your students to use. Give all of your students the opportunity to enjoy richer, more precise conversations in math class and to realize they are a part of the mathematics community. After the initial complaining, they may even discover they enjoy the power of rich vocabulary. A colleague related to me that his middle school students much preferred multiplicative inverse to reciprocal because they were proud of the fact that they used a 5-syllable word. And by naming it a multiplicative inverse, they actually came to understand the concept much better than they would have by simply memorizing the word reciprocal.
Using precise, rich vocabulary is one small part of how you can help students improve their mathematical skills and grow to achieve at higher levels. CPM provides many wonderful, free professional learning opportunities, including publishing research conducted by CPM teachers who are incorporating innovative strategies in their classrooms and reflecting on their efficacy. If you have never browsed through the treasure trove of math teaching research contained at imath.us, I encourage you to check it out today!