Growing Student Confidence and Increasing Math Vocabulary

Last month, Shelly Scheafer shared an inspiring math moment from her first grade classroom in Bend, Oregon. Here are a few follow-up questions with this Bridges teacher.

Question: Your students show a high degree of mathematical confidence. How do you grow and maintain that confidence?

Shelly: I think there are a couple of important ideas that build mathematical confidence, one being that students need to believe their ideas matter. When students explain their thinking or strategies, I give credit to their examples by name and encourage students to do the same. For example, if Chase has a great thought on how to solve a problem and Eli wants to piggyback on this idea, I want Eli to acknowledge Chase's thinking by saying something like, "I started out like Chase, and then I..."

The second thought is acknowledging that we don't all see things the same way or learn things at the same rate, and that mistakes or not understanding something actually help everyone else to learn. If someone comes up with an idea that doesn't work, I'll say something like, "I'm so glad you thought of that. Now we know...  Did that help some of you?" and of course, I raise my hand.

Question: Your first grade student's use of the term "conjecture" is impressive. How do you integrate mathematical vocabulary in the classroom?

Shelly: When I teach, I try to make my classroom as language-rich as possible. Immersing my students in mathematical language is part of this goal. For example, when I call the students to our meeting spot I ask them to either sit on the perimeter or in the area. In the beginning I use a lot of hand gestures and acknowledge students in the right spot, but by the second week of school the students are asking, "Do you want us in the area or the perimeter?"

Too often people think of math as being all about numbers, but for students to use and understand mathematics there is a heavy dependence on language. I use a lot of "Think Alouds" that allow me to use rich vocabulary and define it at the same time. Then when students use a vocabulary word, I'll make a comment like "Smart word!" Pretty soon the entire class is using the "smart word."

In language arts we ask students to make predictions and draw conclusions all the time. So when my class is discussing something like what happens when you add zero to a number, there's always a very animated, confident student who has it figured out, and I'll simply ask, "So would you like to make conjecture?" I get that "Huh? What?" kind of look and the concept of making a conjecture is introduced. Conjecture is simply another three-syllable word my students use when discovering a pattern or a math rule. Next, we try to prove it to see if it is a theorem. Lillie's Conjecture may become Lillie's Theorem. When we ask students to explain their thinking or convince us that something works we're asking for a justification. Conjectures and justifications are central to mathematics; we may as well teach the language.

Have stories about Bridges in your classroom? Share in the comments or contact us by email.