Teaching math to kids: when to introduce technical language

When teaching math to kids, we often over-simplify and use baby language. But should we be introducing technical mathematical concepts earlier? 

Teaching math to kids: Children playing with blocks on the floor

By Becky McIntosh | homemademath.net

Today on Instagram I mentioned that I was gently introducing the language of ”survey” to my (not yet) 5-year-old daughter. I felt hesitant about including it in my comment, which got me thinking, why?

We hesitate to use technical vocabulary

Why am I nervous about saying I’m teaching mathematical vocabulary to a young child?

It’s totally the people pleaser in me coming out. Would someone think I was pushing her too hard? Or my math agenda too much? Would people think I’m just all about academics? Or would they roll their eyes and say, “As if a 4 year old will get that!”

So why is it that we confine math vocabulary to the realm of “later” education?

I mean, I’m always teaching my kids new words. Some they pick up understand and use now, other words drift in and out of their consciousness until they are ready to grab it, understand it and use it (my 2-year-old told his sister today “let’s not argue about it, k?” lol where did that come from?).

Why should I be nervous to include mathematical terms as part of their broader vocabulary?

Mathematics has a beautiful precise language (aside from being a language of its own, but more on that another time). It has a language of strength and clarity.

For example, if I’m describing an event and say:

“There were heaps of people there!” or “It was packed, there were at least 100 people there, maybe 150.” Which gives you a clearer picture?

Or “The house was so close to the beach!” compared to “The house was only 100 metres from the beach!”

These examples are really just using numbers to clarify size and distance, and already we can see math as a useful descriptive tool.

My daughter could say:

“Today I asked people their favourite colour.” Or “Today I took a survey of people’s favourite colours”. The second gives you a much clearer understanding of what actually took place.

Compare “We are on the next road along”, to “Our road is parallel and one to the north” and tell me who is going to get lost sooner?

(My family will all laugh, because I have a notoriously poor sense of direction! Maybe we should have used more math vocab at home).

Waiting, but for what?

Why do we wait to learn the words “parallel” and “perpendicular” when they become curriculum requirements? They are so useful to accurately describe our environment.

Plus (no pun intended), if we introduce these words to our vocabulary we make the world of math less intimidating. It becomes a part of our normal understanding of how the world works.

So if a mathematical term will perfectly describe the equilateral sail; if there are enough Easter eggs for 5 per child; if you are going to space your cookies as an array to bake; or if Johnny eating half his sandwich is the equivalent of Suzy eating her two quarters: don’t be shy.

Introduce math words as you would other vocabulary to your child.

Use them yourself and clarify if they ask. Let’s normalise the language of math, and empower our children to accurately describe the world around them.

Note: If you are wondering what I mean by “introducing” the word to her, we simply spoke about what we were going to do: E.g. ask each person which of these is their favourite colour and draw a line to show each person.

Then when we were at playgroup I said “Would you like to ask people your survey now?” as I handed her her recording sheet. She didn’t stop and ask, “What’s a survey?” she knew what she was going to do and I was simply naming it for her. Will she hence forth refer to it as a survey? Probably not, but over time she will. Just like she learnt the word “apple” through repetition and association as a baby.

This post originally appeared on homemademath.net and has been republished here with permission.

How do you teach mathematical concepts to your kids? Do you use technical language? Comment below.

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Becky McIntosh


Becky is a middle-school mathematics teacher turned homeschool mum on a mission to convert 'mathophobes' and show parents and children just how beautiful maths can be. She runs homemademath.net, a blog and online store where she sells immersive maths units for homeschoolers and schools. Becky is on Instagram at @homemademath