Math Taboo

I participated in a great twitter conversation the other day where we brainstormed a few strategies to help make our courses more accessible to English Language Learners (we used the hashtag #ELLmath, the approximate transcript is here if you are interested). It was a great start to what needs to be a running dialogue for me, as I teach almost 100% students for whom English is not their first language. If anyone has any ideas about #ELLmath, I would love to hear them in the comments. The conversation reminded me of a little idea I had last year, playing the game Math Taboo to help students expand “definitions” to actual understandings of concepts. Now, I’m sure other people do this, and a quick Google search leads me to believe it’s not all that novel, but while discussing #ELLmath, it struck me as a particularly good exercise for ELL students.

The idea of the real game is to get your partner to guess a word by describing without using any of the five taboo words, which are usually the first words that anyone would go to in a description. So the obvious math equivalent is to pick a term that you are throwing around in your class and get students to describe it without using their go-to math descriptors.

We played during beginning-of-the-year-review as a class, with the word to guess already known to everyone, and I gave students a chance to take a stab at verbalizing a definition without using the taboo words, one at a time until we got an acceptable description. However, this could easily be adapted to be a much more interactive activity (though its creation might take just a bit of time).

So why play this?

Whenever working one on one with students, I found myself trying to diagnose why they were not understanding a problem. I would ask them things like, “Well, what is a derivative anyway?” and they would often answer with something that I found acceptable, but perhaps could have been just something that they had figured out should be said as the “correct” answer. Even if they weren’t saying book definitions (which would actually be easier to deal with), many times they were using my informal definitions – words that they had internalized about the concept that might not actually display a deep understanding, but that I had been mistakenly accepting as evidence of learning. Definitions are important, but assuming that those are indicators of deep understanding is, of course, very problematic, no matter where those definitions come from.

So, this Taboo game serves a two-fold purpose: learning for the students (by forcing them to think deeply about a mathematical concept; by having them trade in math jargon for conceptual understanding; and by hearing classmates describe something in more accessible vernacular) and learning for me (by seeing how well students actually understand a concept; and by seeing what language students use to talk math in the hopes that my mathematical narrative can better reflect theirs in the future).

Alternative game: In how few words can you express this definition?

I have never tried this game I’m about to describe, but the idea is to start out with a long definition from a math textbook and see how few words you can use to express the same idea. Delving into the Twitter world this summer I have realized how wordy I am, and the process of editing my tweets down has made me realize how many words I use that are unnecessary. Twitter forces me to think about what is the core of my idea, which led me to think up this exercise. This could be done competitively (give groups 5 minutes to brainstorm), or you could do it countdown style, trying to lower the number of words by one each time. This could get students to really consider what is important about a mathematical concept and to get them to realize that the thing itself is more important the words you use to express it.



  1. For what it’s worth, I’ve never played this myself, but I’ve always thought that if I did, it would be a worthwhile activity for the kids to make the cards too. You give out the vocabulary and the students have to come up with the five taboo words.

  2. One of my co-workers allowed students a single text message as a reference sheet on a test. I really like the emphasis on concise definitions that they write themselves.

  3. What an interesting idea! Thanks for sharing. I think it would help ELL and Special Education students especially, but I’m sure the benefits could be seen across all classrooms to help students “talk math” and/or describe the concepts in their own words.

  4. Good stuff. The second game you describe is “25 Words Or Less” (less popular than Taboo). I agree that kids should make the cards.

    I was always partial to Pyramid for this. “Things a Rhombus Would Say”.

    Slope taboo card needs the word CHANGE!

  5. Hey~ I thought I was brilliant in inventing this game but I guess I just reinvented the wheel. =P I love having my students make the cards, like Stacy had mentioned. I think it helped my kids more than the game itself because they got pretty clever by the end.

    If you’re still looking for ELL vocab stuff, I’m trying something new this year that I’m LOVING and it’s super simple is my favorite part.

    I taught at a school that was 60%+ ELL for six years in LA. =)

  6. Fantastic idea and thanks for sharing. I think any activity that combines literacy and numeracy makes for a richer learning experience, ELL or otherwise.

    Thanks,too, for mentioning the #ellmath tag -will follow that.

    I find that with maths strugglers – as with new language learners – decoding a lump of text can be tricky (think word problems). So, I devised this method to help students and called it GGSC. I know this has helped some students.


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