Talking maths

26th January 2001 at 00:00
Sheila Ebbutt offers suggestions to help avoid verbal misunderstandings

Talking about mathematical ideas requires us to be precise in our use of language. When learning new mathematical ideas we acquire new vocabulary: perimeter, integer, concave - each of these words has its own clear definition, and we need the appropriate knowledge of mathematics in order to understand them.

Much more problematic, however, is the use of everyday words in a strictly mathematical context. Children have the confusing problem of learning that words with simple meanings, such as altogether, difference, join, rearrange, pattern, also have other, mathematical, meanings.This project points out some confusions in mathematical language, and presents some ideas for tackling them.

The examples in this project are more appropriate for key stage 2. At key stage 1 it is best to use words in context.

Are you sure?

Use this as a way of discussing misunderstandings. Children are likely to give examples that are not mathematical, as well as remembering mathematical words they have not understood. They will appreciate an open and frank discussion about misunderstandings where they are not made to feel foolish for not understanding. You could collect difficult and ambiguous words as a class.

Double meanings Children may suggest this kind of thing: * The counter is on the counter.

* There is a sign on the sign.

* Point to the point.

* The ruler is using a ruler.

* There is a face on the face of the cube.

* The plane is on the plane.

* Roll the roll down the slope.

* The operation is having an operation.

* Row along the rows.

* There is a table on the table.

Children will enjoy making up their own examples. You could give them a list of words from which to choose.

Find the words There are two aspects to this page.

1 Children need to be able to read word problems and try to understand the meaning from the context. Fitting in appropriate words will give them a different way of tackling word problems. You could give them problems with key mathematical words blanked out, and ask them to fill in a suitable alternative. Compare different solutions, and discuss them. There is likely to be some variation in their responses, which can all be justified by the context. For example, that "more" can mean addition or subtraction, depending on the context - "How many more have I got than you?" or "How many more do you need to have the same as me?" 2. Children need to learn the definitions of words in the context of the mathematics they are learning. Encourage them to be precise in their use of words, and ask them to define words when you have finished a particular mathematical topic. There is no point in children learning definitions of mathematical terms outside the context of the mathematical activity, but they do need to know the meanings of mathematical words and phrases. They also need to be able to use these words themselves in explanations and discussions. They can build up a class mathematical dictionary, collecting words throughout the year into a big book, which can be revised from time to time.

Sheila Ebbutt is a director of BEAM Education, which is dedicated to promoting the teaching and learning of mathematics as interesting, challenging and enjoyable. For details of BEAM's publications, call 020 7684 3323 or visit


Children can make up their own maths word puns. Get them to discuss the ideas first to make sure they can identify maths words and that they know what these words mean.

Encourage children to explain mathematical ideas in their own words so that you can tell whether they have understood the meanings of the words.

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