Improve Algebra Content Vocabulary with Poetry

Poetry in Algebra Class Doesn't Need to Rhyme

Albert Einstein once said, "Pure mathematics is, in its way, the poetry of logical ideas." Math educators can consider how the logic of math can be supported by the logic of poetry. Each branch of mathematics has its own specific language, and poetry is the arrangement of language or words. Helping students understanding the academic language of algebra is critical to comprehension.

Researcher and educational expert and author  Robert Marzano offers a series of comprehension strategies to help students with the logical ideas described by Einstein. One specific strategy requires students to "provide a description, explanation, or example of the new term." This priority suggestion on how students may explain is focused on activities that ask students to tell a story that integrates the term; students can choose to explain or to tell a story is through poetry.

Why Poetry for Math Vocabulary? 

Poetry helps students reimagine vocabulary in different logical contexts. So much vocabulary in the content area of algebra is interdisciplinary, and students must understand the multiple meanings of terms. Take for example the differences in the meanings of the following term BASE:

Base: (n)

  1.  (architecture) the bottom support of anything; that on which a thing stands or rests; 
  2. the principal element or ingredient of anything, considered as its fundamental part:
  3. (in baseball) any of the four corners of the diamond;
  4. (math) number that serves as a starting point for a logarithmic or other numerical system.

Now consider how the word "base" was cleverly used in a verse that won 1st-place Ashlee Pitock in the Yuba College Math/poetry contest 2015 titled "The Analysis of You and Me":

"I should've seen the base rate fallacy
the mean squared error of your mentality
When the outlier of my affection was unknown to you."

Her use of the word base can produce vivid mental images that forge remembering connections to that particular content area. Research shows that using poetry to show the different meaning of words is an effective instructional strategy to use in EFL/ESL and ELL classrooms.  

Some examples of words Marzano targets as critical for the understanding of algebra: (see complete list)

  • Algebraic function
  • Equivalent forms of equations
  • Exponent
  • Factorial notation
  • Natural number
  • Polynomial addition, subtraction, multiplication, division
  • Reciprocal
  • Systems of inequalities

Poetry as Math Practice Standard 7

The Mathematical Practice Standard #7 states that "mathematically proficient students look closely to discern a pattern or structure. " 

Poetry is mathematical. For example, when a poem is organized in stanzas, the stanzas are organized numerically:

  • couplet (2 lines)
  • tercet (3 lines)
  • quatrain (4 lines)
  • cinquain (5 lines)
  • sestet (6 lines) (sometimes it's called a sexain)
  • septet (7 lines)
  • octave (8 lines) 

Similarly, the rhythm or meter of a poem is organized numerically in rhythmic patterns called "feet" (or syllable stresses on words):

  • one foot=monometer
  • two feet=dimeter
  • three feet=trimeter
  • four feet=tetrameter
  • five feet=pentameter
  • six feet=hexameter 

There are poems that also use other kinds of mathematical patterns, such as the two (2) listed below, the cinquain and the diamante.

Examples of Math Vocabulary and Concepts in Student Poetry

First, writing poetry allows students to associate their emotions/feelings with vocabulary. There can be angst, determination, or humor, as in the following (uncredited author) student's poem on the Hello Poetry website:

Dear Algebra,
Please stop asking us
To find your x
She left
Don't ask y
Algebra students

Second, poems are short, and their brevity can allow teachers to connect to content topics in memorable ways. The poem “Algebra II” for instance, is a clever way show a student shows she can distinguish between the multiple meanings in algebra vocabulary (homographs):

Algebra II
Walking through imaginary woods
I tripped over a root strangely square
Fell and hit my head on a log
And radically, I'm still there.

Third, poetry helps students explore how concepts in a content area can be applied to their own lives into their lives, communities, and the world. It is this stepping beyond the math facts— making connections, analyzing information, and creating new understandings — that enables students to “get into” a subject:

Math 101
in math class
and all we talk about is algebra
adding and subtracting
absolute values and square roots
when all on my mind is you
and as long as I add you to my day
it already sums up my week
but if you subtract yourself from my life
i'd fail even before the day ends
and i'd crumble faster than a
simple division equation

When and How to Write Math Poetry

Improving student comprehension in the vocabulary of algebra is important, but finding the time for this kind of is always challenging. Furthermore, all students may not need the same level of support with the vocabulary. Therefore, one way to use poetry to support vocabulary work is by offering work during long-term "math centers". Centers are areas in the classroom where students refine a skill or extend a concept. In this form of delivery, one set of materials is placed in an area of the classroom as a differentiated strategy to have ongoing student engagement: for review or for practice or for enrichment. 

Poetry "math centers" using formula poems are ideal because they can be organized with explicit instructions so that students can work independently. Additionally, these centers allow students to have the opportunity to engage with others and to "discuss" mathematics. There is also the opportunity to share their work visually.

For math teachers who may have concerns about having to teach poetic elements, there are multiple formula poems, including three listed below, that require no instruction on the literary elements (most likely, they have enough of that instruction in English Language Arts). Each formula poem offers a different way to have students increase their understanding of the academic vocabulary used in algebra.

Math teachers should also know that students can always have the option to tell a story, as Marzano suggests, a more free-form expression of terms. Math teachers should note that a poem told as a narrative does not have to rhyme.

Math educators should also note that using formulas for poetry in algebra class can be similar to the processes for writing math formulas. In fact, the poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge may have been channeling his "math muse" when he wrote in his definition:

"Poetry: the best words in the best order."
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Cinquain Poetry Pattern

Students can use patterns to create math poems and meet Mathematical Practice Standard #7. Credit: Trina Dalzie/GETTY Images

A cinquain consists of five unrhymed lines. There are different forms of the cinquain based on the number of syllables or words in each.

Each line has a set number of syllables seen below:

Line 1: 2 syllables
Line 2: 4 syllables
Line 3: 6 syllables
Line 4: 8 syllables
Line 5: 2 syllables

Example#1:  Student's definition of function restated as cinquain:

takes elements
from set  (input)
and relates them to elements


Line 1: 1 word 

Line 2: 2 words
Line 3: 3 words
Line 4: 4 words
Line 5: 1 word

Example #2: Student's explanation of Distributive Property-FOIL

Distributive Property
Follows an Order
First, Outside, Inside, Last
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Diamante Poetry Patterns

Math patterns are found in the Diamante which can be used to improve student understanding of language and concepts of algebra. Tim Ellis/GETTY Images

The Structure of a Diamante Poem

A diamante poem is made up of seven lines using a set structure; the number of words in each is the structure:

Line 1: Beginning subject
Line 2: Two describing words about line 1
Line 3: Three doing words about line 1
Line 4: A short phrase about line 1, a short phrase about line 7
Line 5: Three doing words about line 7
Line 6: Two describing words about line 7
Line 7: End subject

Example of a student's emotional response to algebra:

Hard, challenging
Trying, concentrating, thinking
Formulas, inequalities, equations, circles
Frustrating, confusing, applying
Useful, enjoyable
Operations, solutions
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Shape or Concrete Poetry

Concrete or "shape" poetry means information is placed into the shape of something in represents. Katie Edwards/GETTY Images

A Shape Poem or Concrete  Poetry is a type of poetry that not only describes an object but is also shaped the same as the object the poem is describing. This combination of content and form helps to create one powerful effect in the field of poetry.

In the following example, the concrete poem is set up as a math problem:


Additional Resource

Additional information on cross-disciplinary connections are in the article "The Math Poem" From Mathematics Teacher 94 (May 2001).

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Bennett, Colette. "Improve Algebra Content Vocabulary with Poetry." ThoughtCo, Aug. 27, 2020, Bennett, Colette. (2020, August 27). Improve Algebra Content Vocabulary with Poetry. Retrieved from Bennett, Colette. "Improve Algebra Content Vocabulary with Poetry." ThoughtCo. (accessed March 27, 2023).