Maths Terminology for Primary School Teachers & Students

maths terminology national curriculum
Understanding basic maths terminology can help or hinder student's learning and understanding of maths.

How can they answer a question, if they don't understand what the questions means?

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Why is Maths Terminology Important in Primary Schools?

Simply, before a student can start to solve a problem, they must first understand that problem.

Understanding can take many forms, but the most basic is understanding the language used.

How can you “calculate the area of the square”, when you don’t know what “calculate” means or “square” means?

There is an even more important reason: mathematical language is crucial to children’s development of thinking. If children don’t have the vocabulary to talk about maths, they will struggle to make progress in understanding these areas of mathematics.

How to spot when a student doesn't understand the words?

How do you know when a student is struggling (1) because they don’t understand the language used or (2) because they don’t understand the mathematics?

I am afraid the answer is by being extremely sensitive to what they write and say. 

In their worksheets, are they adding when they should be subtracting?

In class discussions, are they avoiding using words such as difference or product, or are they misusing words that have a different meaning in spoken English – Odd, table?  

Students that struggle with the language will shy away from discussing it. 

Maths Terminology and the National Curriculum

The National Curriculum supports the idea that accurate use of language is fundamental in understanding mathematics: 


The national curriculum for mathematics reflects the importance of spoken language in
pupils’ development across the whole curriculum – cognitively, socially and linguistically.
The quality and variety of language that pupils hear and speak are key factors in
developing their mathematical vocabulary and presenting a mathematical justification,
argument or proof. They must be assisted in making their thinking clear to themselves as
well as others and teachers should ensure that pupils build secure foundations by using
discussion to probe and remedy their misconceptions.”

How to Help Students Develop their Mathematical Vocabulary

There are four basic ways we can use any language:

Listening  – Students listen to teachers talking, presenting and explaining and to their peers.

Reading – Students read textbooks, worksheets, and displays.

Writing – Students present their work by writing (and perhaps drawing).

Speaking – Students ask questions and present their ideas. 

Teachers often use informal, everyday language in mathematics lessons before and alongside mathematical vocabulary. This can help children grasp a new concept or meaning, but it shouldn’t be relied upon medium to long term. A structured approach to the learning of vocabulary is essential if children are to use the correct maths terminology.

The introduction of new words needs explicit planning. 

I am a big fan of the Concrete-Pictorial-Abstract approach, so ideally, new words should be provided in a context, for example, with relevant real objects.  


Explain the words meaning carefully and use them again and again. Try and reconnect to previous topics. Don’t fallback to informal language. They need to understand the language to access the maths. 



Make sure students are going to see the word (in a context).

On your whiteboard, in their textbook, on their worksheet, on a classroom display.

List antonyms or synonyms on your working wall. 


Use every opportunity to get students to write out the relevant words correctly and then get those words up on your working wall. Get students to label diagrams, write a description of the football league table and permutations after the next match, make their own maths dictionary. 


Encourage the use of the new word in context in discussions by effective questioning (both open and closed) in groups and as a class. 

Maths Terminology with Emile

We were kindly invited to talk to a maths hub meeting in Jan, and one teacher mentioned that at a recent Ofsted inspection, a child hadn’t understood the inspectors question “When do you do numeracy?”.

In response to the blank stare, the inspector asked “when do you do mathematics?”. 

Another blank stare, and the teacher intervened with “When do we do maths?”

The teacher felt that this short exchanged unfairly coloured the inspector’s view of her lessons and the maths teaching in the school. 

To try and help we created Maths Terms with Emile. Set in a Willy Wonka inspired world Caramella, students can compete to see who knows their Maths Terms.  

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