Full confession: I’m a word-nerd. I love language. When I was a kid I would read the dictionary and explore the etymologies of words in a beat-up edition of the American-Heritage dictionary. The other side of this is that I’m highly tuned in to words, the power they have to draw people in, or push people away.
So in my tutoring I pay a lot of attention to the words I use when I talk to my students about math. And I think this has paid off over the years, as I’ve developed a reputation as a person parents bring their kid to when the child is frozen with math anxiety.
Since this is the start of a school year I’d like to make a few suggestions on how all of us who are math instructors — teachers, tutors, homeschoolers, parents — phrase our “math talk” so we keep the level of math anxiety as low as possible to keep our students as open to math learning as possible.
- Avoid closed-ended questions. Wait! you’re thinking. This is math class. There have to be closed-ended questions! Math problems have just one answer. Perhaps, but you don’t have to phrase every question in a closed-ended way. Suppose you have the diagram of a rectangle that is 12″ x 7″, and you want your children to figure out its area.
You could simply ask: What is its area?
Or, you could ask: Does anyone have an idea about its area?
The first question makes children feel that there is only one way to answer, and their answer will be either wrong or right. The second question allows a child to say a variety of things that could be right, such as: a) the area is base times height, or b) the area is in square inches, or c) the area is more than 12 square inches. Because the question is open-ended, it allows for a variety of answers, not just one answer, therefore it invites participation from more children, not just from the child who knows the answer in the precise number of square inches.
- Encourage exploration, and let the learning come as a natural result. Example, suppose that you’re teaching the concept of equivalent fraction and you’re using fraction circles to do so. Imagine that you’ve just helped your child understand the barest beginning of the concept of equivalent fractions by helping him see that 1/3 = 2/6 by placing two 1/6 pieces on top of one 1/3 piece.
You might next want the child to follow this up by finding another kind of fraction that is equivalent to 1/3.
The closed-ended way to do this would be to tell the child that such a fraction exists and to ask him to find it.
The more open-ended way would be to ask the child if s/he thinks there might be another piece, other than sixths, that would fit perfectly on top of the 1/3 piece.
“Do you want to explore if there’s another piece that might fit on top of the 1/3 piece?” you could say to the child. That’s all you’d need to say, and the child will be off and carrying out the challenge.
- Allow for multiple approaches to the same answer. Let’s say you’re teaching an algebra lesson on simplifying numerical square roots. It’s a nice idea to teach the process in two ways and let the students know that both ways are equally valid. The first way involves prime factorizing the number under the square root, then taking out one of every pair of prime factors. The second way involves breaking the number into a perfect square times another number, then taking out the square root of the perfect square. You demonstrate both techniques and have students learn both techniques. Then you let each student decide on which technique s/he wishes to use. Doing this models the idea that there is more than one way to do math procedures, and that shows students that they can develop their own ways to do math procedures as long as their way leads to the correct answer.
So these are a few ideas on ways to talk about math to students. I know from my own experience that the way we talk about math has a big impact on how comfortable students feel around the subject of math.