Teacher Glossary of Key Early Math Terms

As you explore the resources on this website, you might come across these key early math terms. This list of definitions is designed to support your knowledge of math vocabulary.


Any characteristic of a physical or math object. For example, length, number, or angle are mathematical attributes and color is a non-mathematical attribute.


The number representing how many there are in a group or set.

Cognitive Flexibility

The ability to consider several approaches to solving a problem, think about a situation in different ways, and shift between tasks.

Counting On

When adding one set to another, for example, 5 + 2, start counting from the total number of one of the sets (e.g., “5, 6, 7” or “2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7”), rather than starting from 1.


Taking apart a mathematical unit—such as a number or shape—to create subunits, or putting units together to make a combined unit.


Making an approximation of a quantity (e.g., how many items there are, how long something is, or a sum) without exact counting, measuring, or computing.

Executive Function Skills

Cognitive skills used to deliberately and effortfully evaluate and control our own thoughts and behavior (e.g., cognitive flexibility, inhibitory control, and working memory).

Inhibitory Control

The ability to resist making an impulsive, automatic response when a different, intentional response is more appropriate to reach your goal (such as when waiting for your turn, or a child resisting taking another child’s toy).

Nonstandard Unit/Nonstandard Measurement

Instead of measuring using an official standard unit (such as an inch or meter), measuring using units like objects or body parts. For example, using popsicle sticks to measure length, or a handful to measure volume.

Number Word

Written, spoken, or signed words that represent quantities and/or number symbols (numerals such a “4″) and can be used to count, measure, or label (e.g., a telephone number).


The symbols we use to represent number (e.g., 1, 2, 3).

One-to-One Correspondence

When counting items, use one and only one number from the counting sequence for each item. Count every item only once.


A closed shape with four angles and two pairs of opposite sides, with each pair parallel and the same length. Because they have these properties, this also includes rectangles, squares, and rhombuses.

Pattern Unit

The part of a pattern that repeats. For example, if the pattern is red, red, blue, red, red, blue, the pattern unit is red red blue.


Sounds, objects, features (like color or shape), or movements that repeat in a predictable way more than twice (e.g., clap stomp clap stomp clap stomp). Growing patterns are sounds, objects, features, or movements that increase/decrease in the same predictable way.

Relative Value

The value of a number compared to another number (e.g., greater than, less than, equal to).

Skip Counting

Counting forward or backward by numbers other than 1, such as counting by twos (2, 4, 6, 8) or counting by tens (40, 30, 20, 10).

Spatial Relational Language

Vocabulary that describes and compares shape, size, orientation, or location of entities, such as “square”, “taller”, “diagonal”, and “above.”

Spatial Thinking

Thinking about the positions of people and objects relative to each other, as well as their size, shape, or orientation.


Quickly recognize the number of objects in a set without counting. Usually visual, it can also be rhythmic.


A four-sided closed shape with one and only one pair of parallel sides.

Working Memory

The ability to simultaneously think about and manipulate information in the mind (such as keeping track of what items you counted already and which you haven’t counted while counting a set.)