Math is more than numbers, plus signs, minus signs, division, and multiplication. It is filled with concepts and terminology. This 3-part blog series based on a recent continuing education course offered by Kathleen Aiken Babineau, M.S., CCC-SLP discusses literature regarding the relationship between math and language and offers some strategies to help children understand this complex relationship. As Harmon, Hedrick, & Wood (pg. 266) describe, “Mathematics presents challenging reading because this content area has more concepts per word, per sentence, and per paragraph than ANY other area.” Some students do poorly due to difficulty understanding the language of the problem or reading the problem. Students must have the following skills to do well in math:
- Understanding math vocabulary
- Understanding math concepts
- Strong listening comprehension
- Strong reading comprehension
Although the skills described above are essential to a child’s success with math, literature into math vocabulary has revealed three specific areas that involve language. Success with mathematics (and language) involves the relationship between all three. These elements are:
- Symbolic language: this is the numbers, tables, graphs, formulas we all think of when we hear the word “math”.
- Content vocabulary: this is the technical language behind math, such as “fraction”, “equation”, “exponent”, or “degree”.
- Academic language: this is the language itself that is used in math. Examples include “summarize”, “simplify”, “evaluate”, or “convert”.
Comprehension of both content and academic language is essential for success. When a student does not understand the content words, such as “Write an equation for acceleration”, they cannot complete the task. The same is true for academic math vocabulary, such as “Convert Billy’s height from feet to inches.” Difficulty with comprehension of this vocabulary may lead to difficulty with comprehension of verbal instructions, written language (like in the textbook or workbook), or the words in story problems. Then, when the student is asked to “explain” his/her approach, they may have difficulty with written language. Our next step is to understand research in this area, then talk about some strategies which may help.