Mathematics Opinion

Prevent Confusing Language From Confusing Students

By David Ginsburg — May 28, 2011 1 min read

In Academic Fluency: A Key to Academic Proficiency, I wrote that proficiency in an academic subject depends in part on fluency in that subject’s language. Now, here’s a key to helping students achieve such fluency: anticipating and alleviating confusion when words have different meanings in academic subjects than they have in everyday language.

Such words are especially common in math where, for example, reducing a fraction to lowest terms has no effect on its value (e.g., 6/8 = 3/4). And where we borrow a “1" when subtracting even though we’re not going to return it.

It would be tempting to try to prevent confusion by replacing words like “reduce” and “borrow” with more precise language such as “convert” and “take” (or “steal”?), respectively. But this might create more confusion than it prevents, since students are sure to encounter the confusing language in various resources and other classes.

So rather than replace confusing words, be sure to proactively discuss with students how their meanings in your class are different from their meanings in other contexts. Also be sure to avoid shortening expressions until you’re sure students understand what they mean (e.g., telling students to “reduce it” as opposed to “reduce it to lowest terms”).

As for assessing students’ understanding of language inconsistencies, try True-False questions where students have to explain why each statement is true or false. Example: “When you reduce a fraction to lowest terms, the new fraction has a lower value than the original fraction.”

Just a few ideas to prevent confusing language from confusing students. Feel free to borrow steal them.

Image provided by Phillip Martin with permission

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