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The Language of Math

Because I’m an author, some people often wonder if it was ever a challenge to grow up with a mom who loved numbers the way I loved words. My mom taught high school math for thirty years but, the truth was, my mother loved language as much as she loved math. One of the great gifts of my childhood was that she taught me to see math as another language – one of nuance and beauty, of games, of wonderful problem solving, of questions and answers, of getting logically from point A to point B. Now, I’m homeschooling my six year old daughter (with help from my mom!) and we’re both enjoying sharing the language of math with her.

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So often, I hear people say, “Ugh, I hate math. I never use it.” This is hard for me to hear mostly because I don’t understand how anyone moves through the world without math. Math is all around us: in the shape of things, in the way we keep track of our lives, in the logical way we make decisions. Awhile back, I asked my mom, now retired, if there was one thing she wished people would do with their children as they encountered school math. She told me she wished people would approach math more globally –discuss the way we name things mathematically – explain why this naming is important, instead of just flat memorization. I love this notion of “naming” things (I’m an author after all) and I know that this naming was the gift my mom gave me in relation to math. Anytime I asked her, “Why do I need to know this?” she would have a meaningful reason, not just “because of stuff that comes later,” but an actual rationale. “There is beauty in solving things,” she would tell me. “The mind is capable of amazing things.”

Here are three ways I’m sharing the language of math with my six year old.

Shapes. They’re all around us and they’re made up of sides (counting!) and lines and color and depth (volume!). When my daughter was a kindergartner, we spent time counting all the circles we could find, all the rectangles, triangles, squares and octagons. This year, we spend a lot of time talking about shapes and finding them in the world around us and drawing them and seeing how much liquid they’ll hold or making guesses about their size (estimation!) and then measuring them.

Math as Storytelling. I’m a writer, so I’m drawn to anything taught within the context of a story. I love Marilyn Burns’ books and Uno’s Garden for integrating story into math, but I also like my daughter to take the concepts we’re learning in math and create a story out of them. Last year, she created a story called “The Sad Circle” who “just wanted to have sides like the other shapes.” This ended up a wonderful integrated piece between language arts and math because not only did the circle end up connecting to all her other shape friends, but she also learned that she was special because of her uniqueness, her looping “side”. Anything can be turned into a story and it’s a fun, creative way for a child to invest in a concept.

Using the terms. My mom often argues that so much of math is simply understanding the terminology, the vocabulary of math, and employing it in daily life. This is the essence of problem solving – asking questions to get to a reasonable outcome using appropriate language. When my daughter and I do things together, I try to use terms like greater than, less than, half, quarters, volume, etc with her so that these become part of the way she asks questions about the world around her. That way, when she gets a story problem like “Tony had 14 sea shells and then he gave 6 of them to Erica,” she knows to say, “Okay, so he ‘ gave some away’ – that’s subtraction.” Building in the language gives them the words they need to process the math.

Kim Culbertson is the author of the young adult novels Songs for a Teenage Nomad (Sourcebooks 2010) and Instructions for a Broken Heart (Sourcebooks 2011). She has taught high school English, drama and creative writing for 13 years but homeschooling her daughter is the best teaching gig she’s ever had. Visit her at

Kim Culbertson

Kim Culbertson is the author of the young adult novels Songs for a Teenage Nomad (Sourcebooks 2010) and Instructions for a Broken Heart (Sourcebooks 2011). She has taught high school English, drama and creative writing for 13 years but homeschooling her daughter is the best teaching gig she’s ever had. Visit her at

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  1. Marco

    Loved your article!

    It gives life to what the Greek Mathematician Euclid once stated: “The laws of nature are but the mathematical thoughts of God!”

    Math is simply another way in which God reveals Himself

  2. Sarah

    I agree that working with children to develop the language of math is very important! As a teacher of many students who speak English as a 2nd language I use several strategies to develop math language including a math word wall, introducing new math vocabulary prior to the lesson, using sentence frames and math journal tasks which require students to explain their thinking. This year I am using the math journal tasks from:
    and have noticed a real improvement in my students’ ability to explain their thinking in a clear manner using math language.

  3. Peggy at Teachnology

    Similar to “Math as Storytelling” everyday math work great to help kids make connections.

    Try this experiment. I am trying it as I am writing this comment. My daughter just turned 6.

    You might say to your six year old, “What is 17 – 9?” You might get a blank look.

    My experiment: I got the blank look and 2 minutes later, I got the answer.

    If you re-phrased it as “You have 16 dollars. You buy a doll for 8 dollars. Then you see the coolest looking hat in the world and it is 9 dollars. Can you buy the coolest looking hat in the world?”

    My experiment: I got the correct answer in 57 seconds.

    It works! It’s a simple motivation technique that we all should embrace.

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