Vocabulary in Mathematics - Specialised vocabulary in secondary school/Middle School

Vocabulary and English for Specific Purposes Research - Averil Coxhead 2018

Vocabulary in Mathematics
Specialised vocabulary in secondary school/Middle School

Mathematics is a core subject at secondary school in New Zealand. To identify examples of Mathematics vocabulary, I carried out an analysis of an advanced Mathematics textbook by Barton and Cox (2013) used in New Zealand secondary schools. Table 5.1 shows the 12 most frequent lexical items in the textbook from the first 3,000 high frequency BNC lists from Nation (2013). The first column shows words in the first 1,000 list and the majority are function words and non-meaning carrying words. That said, the 11th most frequent word in this group is cos. Other examples from the first 100 of the BNC 1,000 outside the most frequency dozen words in Table 5.1 are: point, number, fixed, related, and let (as in Let X be…). The second 1,000 BNC list in the middle column contains more examples of words which are more closely related to Mathematics, including calculate and constant.

Table 5.1 The first 12 most frequent items in the first three BNC/COCA lists from Delta Mathematics (Barton & Cox, 2013)

The third column in Table 5.1 also contains lexis, which is closely related to Mathematics. The table shows possible differences and problematic features of everyday vocabulary and technical vocabulary. Leung (2005) investigates formal and informal vocabulary use in primary school Mathematics and argues for ’weaning’ students off informal language in Mathematics. She writes,

The technical and specialist use of language for specific purposes can be interpreted in two very different ways: (A) technical language as a sign of expertise and valued knowledge (positive evaluation) and (B) technical language as unnecessary jargon (negative evaluation).

(p. 127)

Leung (2005) also notes that both connotations ’are underpinned by an implicit acknowledgement that the use of technical language is a form of meaning making and meaning interpretation’ (p. 128). The examples of collocations and multi-word units occurring over 50 times in the Barton and Cox (2013) textbook in Table 5.2 shows the kind of technical vocabulary students in schools need to work with their Mathematics textbook. Being able to recognise and interpret this vocabulary is essential in this subject area.