Attend to Precision: The Foundation of Mathematical Thinking

The sixth of the Standard of Mathematics Practice (SMP) in Common Core State Standards (CCSS-M) is: Attend to Precision. The key word in this standard is the verb “attend.” The primary focus is attention to precision of communication of mathematics—in thinking, in speech, in written symbols, in usage of reasoning, in applying it in problem solving, and in specifying the nature and units of quantities in numerical answers and in graphs and diagrams. With experience, the concepts should become more precise, and the vocabulary with which students name the concepts, accordingly, should carry more precise meanings.

The word “precision” calls to mind accuracy and correctness—accuracy of thought, speech and action. While accuracy in calculation is a part, clarity in communication is the main intent of this standard. The habit of striving for clarity, simplicity, and precision in both speech and writing is of great value in any discipline and field of study. In casual communication, we use context and people’s reasonable expectations to derive and clarify meanings so that we don’t burden our communication with too many details that the reader/listener can surmise anyway. But in mathematics (thinking, communicating, and writing), we base each new idea/concept logically on earlier ones; to do so “safely,” we must not leave room for ambiguity and misconceptions.

Students can start work with mathematics ideas without a precise definition. With experience, the concepts should become more precise, and the vocabulary with which we name the concepts can, accordingly, should carry more precise meanings. But we should strive for clarity and precision constantly. Striving for precision is also a way to refine understanding. By forcing an insight into precise language (natural language or mathematical symbols), we come to understand it better and then communicate it effectively. For example, new learners often trip over the order relationships of negative numbers until they find a way to reconcile their new learning (–12 is less than –6) with prior knowledge: 12 is bigger than 6, and –12 is twice –6, both of which pull for a intuitive feeling that –12 is the “bigger” number. Having ways to express the two kinds of “bigness” and the sign defining the direction helps distinguish them. Learners could acquire technical vocabulary, like magnitude or absolute value, or could just refer to the greater distance from 0, but being precise about what is “bigger” about –12 helps clarify thinking about what is not bigger. With such a vocabulary, one can express the relationship between the two numbers more precisely.

The standard applies equally to teachers and students and by extension to textbooks, modes and purpose of assessments, and expectations of performance. To achieve this, teachers need to be attentive to precision in their teaching and insist on its presence in students’ work. They should demonstrate, demand and expect precision in all aspects of students’ interactions relating to mathematics with them and with other students. Teachers must attend to what students pay attention to and demonstrate precision in their work, during the learning process and problem solving. This is not possible unless teachers also attend to the same standards of precision in their teaching.

Teachers, while developing students’ capacity to “attend to precision,” should focus on clarity and accuracy of process and outcomes of mathematics learning and in problem solving from the beginning of schooling and each academic year. For example, teachers can engage their students in a “mathematics language talk” to describe their mathematics activity. The emphasis on precision can begin in Kindergarten where they talk about number and number relationships and continues all the way to high school where they furnish mathematics reasoning for their selection and use of formulas and results.

Attention to precision is an overarching way of thinking mathematically and is essential to teaching, learning, and communicating in all areas of mathematical content across the grades.

For the development of precision, teachers should probe students to defend whether their requirements for a definition are adequate as an application to the problem in question, or whether there are some flaws in their group’s thinking that they need to modify, refine and correct. Just like in the writing process, one goes through the editing process, students should come to realize that in mathematics also one requires editing of expressions to make them appealing, understandable and precise.

However, communication is hard; precise and clear communication takes years to develop and often eludes even highly educated adults. With elementary school children, it is generally less reasonable to expect them to “state the meaning of the symbols they choose” in any formal way than to expect them to demonstrate their understanding of appropriate terms through unambiguous and correct use.

The expectations according to the standard are that mathematically proficient students

  • communicate their understanding precisely to others using proper mathematical terms and language: “A whole number is called prime when it has exactly two factors, namely 1 and itself” rather than “A number is called prime if it can be divided by 1 and itself.
  • use clear and precise definitions in discussion with others and in their own reasoning: e.g. “A rectangle is a four straight-sided closed figure with right angles only” rather than “A four-sided figure with two long sides and two short sides.”
  • state the meaning of the symbols they choose, use the comparison signs ( =, >, etc.) consistently and appropriately, for example, the names of > and < are not greater and smaller than respectively, but depend on how we read them: x > 7 is read as: x is greater than 7 or 7 is less than x; 2x + 7 = -5 + 3x is bidirectional (2x + 7 => -5 + 3x and 2x + 7 <= -5 + 3x).
  • are careful about the meaning of the units (e.g., “measure of an angle is the amount of rotation from the initial side to the terminal side” rather than “measure of an angle is the area inside the angle or the distance from one side to the other”), identifying and specifying the appropriate units of measure in computations, and clearly labeling diagrams (e.g., identify axes to clarify the correspondence with quantities and variables in the problem, vertices in a geometrical figure are upper case letters and lengths are lower case letters, and the side opposite to the <A in ΔABC is denoted by “a”, etc.).
  • calculate accurately and efficiently, express numerical answers with a degree of precision appropriate for the problem context (e.g., the answer for the problem: “Calculate the area A of a circle with radius 2 cm” is A = 4π sq cm not A = 12.56 sq cm; if x2 = 16, then x = ± 4, not x = 4, whereas √16 = 4, etc.).
  • know and state the conditions under which a particular expression, formula, or procedure works or does not work.

Beginning with the elementary grades, this means that students learn and give carefully formulated explanations to each other and to the teacher (at Kindergarten level it may mean that the child explains her answer for 8 + 1 = 9 as “I know adding by 1 means it is the next number. I know 9 is next number after 8” or can show it concretely as “Look here is the 8-rod add the 1-rod and I get the 9-rod.” By the time they reach high school, they have learned to examine claims—their own and others’ in mathematical conversations, make explicit use of definitions, formulas, and results, and proper and adequate reasoning. At the high school level the explanations are rooted in any or more of these:

  • demonstrating it concretely,
  • showing by creating and extending a pattern,
  • application of analogous situation, or
  • logical reasoning—proving it using either deductive or inductive reasoning or using an already proved result.

What Does the “Attention to Precision” Look Like?
Effective mathematics teachers who use precision and efficiency in their teaching and encourage precision in their classrooms produce mathematically proficient students. Mathematically proficient students understand the role of precision in mathematics discourse and learning. They understand that mathematics is a precise, efficient, and universal language and activity. Precision in mathematics refers to:


  • Appropriate vocabulary (proper terms, expressions, definitions), syntax (proper use of order of words), and accurate translation from words to mathematical symbols and from mathematical symbols to words.
  • Knowledge of the difference between a pattern, definition, proof, example, counter example, non-example, lemma, analogy, etc. at the appropriate grade level.
  • Reading and knowing the meaning of instructions: compute or calculate (4 × 5, √16, etc., not solve), simplify (an expression, not solve), evaluate (find the value, not solve), prove (logically, not an example), solve (an equation, problem, etc.),
  • Know the difference between actions such as: sketch, draw, construct, display, etc.
  • Precise language (clear definitions, appropriate mathematical vocabulary, specified units of measure, etc.).

Teacher instruction about vocabulary must be clear and correct and must help children to understand the role of vocabulary in clear communication: sometimes formal terms and words distinguish meanings that common vocabulary does not, and in those cases, they aid precision; but there are also times when formal terms/words camouflage the meaning. Therefore, while teachers and curriculum should never be sloppy in communication, we should choose our level of precision appropriately. The goal of precision in communication is clarity of communication and achieving understanding.

A teacher can use familiar vocabulary to help specify which object(s) are being discussed—which number or symbol, which feature of a geometric object—using specific attributes, if necessary, to clarify meaning. Actions such as teaching writing numerals to Kindergarten by “song and dance” is a good starting point, but ultimately the teacher should use the proper directional symbols, e.g.,

  • To write number “4” the teacher first should point out the difference between the written four (4) and printed four (4). Then she needs to show the direction of writing (start from the top come down and then go to the right and then pick up the pencil and start at the same level to the right of the first starting point and come down crossing the line).
  • When discussing a diagram, pointing at a rectangle from far away and saying, “No, no, that line, the long one, there,” is less clear than saying “The vertical line on the right side of the rectangle.”
  • Compare “If you add three numbers and you get even, then all the numbers are even or one of them is even” with “If you add exactly three whole numbers and the sum is even, then either all three of the numbers must be even or exactly one of them must be even.”
  • Compare giving an instruction or reading a problem as “when multiply 3 over 4 by 2 over 3, we multiply the two top numbers over multiply two bottom numbers” to “find the product of or multiply three-fourth by two-third, the product of numerators is divided by the product of denominators.”

Elementary school children (and, to a lesser extent, even adults) almost never learn new words effectively from definitions. Virtually all of their vocabulary is acquired from use in context. Children build their own “working definitions” based on their initial experiences. With experience and guidance, the concepts should become more precise, and the vocabulary with which children name the concepts will carry more precise meanings. Formal definitions generally come last. Children’s use of language varies with development but typically does not adhere to “clear definition” as much as to holistic images. If the teacher and curriculum serve as the “native speakers” of clear Mathematics, young students, who are the best language learners around, can learn the language from them.

Accuracy (know the difference between exact, estimate, approximation and their appropriateness in context) and appropriate level of precision in use of numbers (level and degree of estimation, significant digits, significant powers, units of measurement), correct classification and location of number on the number line (e.g., to locate ⅞, one divides the unit segment into halves and then each half into fourths, and then each fourth into eighths and then locates ⅞ rather than arbitrarily divide the unit segment into eight parts), correct relationships between numbers (e.g., √(140) is between 11 = √(121) and 12 = √(144), because, we have 121 < 140 < 144, therefore, √(121) < √(140) < √(144), but √(140) much closer to 12 as 140 is much closer to 144 than 121), selection of appropriate range and window on graphing calculator, tool selection (when to use what tools–paper-pencil, concrete models, diagrams, abstract, or calculator), and appropriate meaning of numbers in the outcome of operations (what role do the quotient and remainder play in the outcome from the long division algorithm, etc.). Precise numbers (calculate accurately and efficiently; given a context, round to an appropriate degree of precision)

Teachers should use written symbols correctly. In particular, the equal sign (=) is used only between complete expressions and signals the equality of those two expressions. To explain one way to add 42 + 36, we sometimes see it written (incorrectly) this way: 40 + 30 = 70 + 2 = 72 + 6 = 78. This is a correct sequence of calculator buttons for this process but not a correct written mathematics expression: 40 + 30 is not equal to 70 + 4; only the last equals sign is correctly used. We need the = sign to have a single, specific meaning. Also, the equal sign should not be misused to mean “corresponds to”: writing “4 boys = 8 legs” is incorrect.

Appropriate choice of concepts and models in the problem solving approach: choice of strategy in addition/subtraction (8 + 6 = 8 + 2 + 4 = 10 + 4 = 14, 8 + 6 = 4 + 4 + 6 = 10 + 4 = 14, 8 + 6 = 2 + 6 + 6 = 2 + 12, 8 + 6 = 8 + 8 – 2 = 16 – 2 = 14, or 8 + 6 = 7 + 1 + 6 = 7 + 7 = 14 rather than “counting up” 6 from 8 or 8 from 6), appropriate multiplication/division model (the only models of multiplication work for fraction multiplication are “groups of” or “area of a rectangle” not “repeated addition” and the “array” models), which exponential rule, which rule of factoring, which rule for differentiation, what parent function to relate to, what formula to use, etc.

Reasoning, Symbols, and Writing Mathematics
Appropriate and efficient use of definitions, reasons, methods of proof, and order of reasoning in solving problems and explanations. For example, children should know the reasons for using the “order of operations” or that the solutions of equations have domains and range. Precise usage of symbols and writing:

  • Choose correct symbols and operators to represent a problem (knowns and unknowns; constants and variables),
  • State the meaning of the symbols and operations chosen appropriate to the grade level (multiplication: 4×5, 45, 4(5), (4)5,(4)(5), a(b), (a)b, (a)(b), ab),
  • Label axes, shapes, figures, diagrams, to clarify the correspondence with quantities in a problem, location of numbers,
  • Show enough appropriate steps to communicate how the answer was derived,
  • Organize the work so that a reader can follow the steps (know how to use paper in an organized and systematic form—left to right, top to bottom),
  • Clearly explain, in writing, how to solve a specific problem,
  • Use clear definitions in discussion with others and in reasoning
  • Specify units of measure and dimensions,
  • Calculate accurately and efficiently.

At the elementary level, even the simplest of things such as: the proper way of forming numbers and mathematical symbols, writing the problems solving steps in a sequence: ([3(4 + 8) – (4 ÷ 2)] = [3(12) – (2)] =[36 − 2]= 34 rather than 4 + 8 = 12 × 3 = 36 −2 = 34). Similarly, clarity in reading numbers and mathematical symbols needs to be  emphasized from the beginning (e.g., ¾ is read as “3 parts out of 4 equal parts” rather than “3 out of 4,” “3 divided by 4” rather than “3 over 4.”

It is difficult to change inappropriate and incorrect habits later on. For example, when elementary grade teachers do not emphasize the importance of aligning multi-digit numbers in their appropriate place values, this creates problems for children later. New symbols and operations are introduced at each grade level, so it is important for the teacher to introduce them correctly and then expect precision in their execution.

Similarly, when middle and high school students are not instructed to write fractions properly, it creates problems. The following high school lesson illustrates the point. The problem on the board was:


To solve the equation, in order to eliminate fractions in the equation, the student suggested we multiply the whole equation by the common denominator of all the fractions in the equation (a correct and efficient method). When I asked for the common denominator, the student said: 9x because the denominators are 3x, 9 and 3. The error is purely because of lack of precision in writing fractions in the equations.

Precision often means including units when specifying numerical quantities. But not always. The purpose of precision is never to create work, only to create clarity. Sometimes a number is clear by itself, other times a unit is needed, sometimes a whole sentence is required: the situation determines the need. For the same reason, label graphs and diagrams sufficiently to make their meaning and the meanings of their parts clear.

Exposure and consistent questions from the teacher such as the following help students to be accurate, precise and efficient:

  • Is this the right way of writing the expression (number, symbol, etc.)?
  • Does the diagram you have drawn show the elements asked for or given in the problem?
  • Is this the right unit for the quantities/numbers given in the problem?
  • What mathematical terms apply in this situation?
  • Is the term you used the right one in this situation?
  • How do you know your solution is reasonable and accurate?
  • Explain how you might show that your solution answers the problem?
  • How are you showing the meaning of the quantities given in the problem (e.g., problem says: “the length of the rectangle is 3 more than twice the width)? Does your rectangle demonstrate the right dimensions? Your rectangle looks like a square.
  • What symbols or mathematical notations are important in this problem?
  • What mathematical language, definitions, known results, properties, can you use to explain ….?
  • Can you read this number (symbol, expression, formula, etc.) more efficiently?
  • Is ___ reading (saying, writing, drawing, etc.) correctly? If not, can you state it correctly and more efficiently?
  • How could you test your solution to see if it answers the problem?
  • Of all the solutions and strategies presented in the classroom, which ones are exact/correct?
  • Which one of the strategies is efficient (can achieve the goal more effectively)?
  • What would be a more efficient strategy?
  • Which one is the most elegant (can be generalized and applied to more complex problems) strategy? Etc.

The number and quality of questions in a classroom bring the attention of students to appropriate and precise conversation. In a fourth grade geometry lesson, I had the following exchange with the students: 

Sharma: Look at this rectangle (I was holding one of the 10 by 10 by 1 rectangular solids in my hand) while touching the 10 by 10 face, I asked: What are the dimensions of this rectangle?

A student raised his hand and said: “That is not a rectangle. It is a square.”

I said: “yes, it is a square. Can you also call it a rectangle? Is it also rectangle?”

“No!” He declared emphatically.

I asked the class: “How many of you believe that it is not a rectangle?” Almost every hand went up.

When I asked them what the definition of a rectangle was, almost all of them said: “A rectangle has two long sides and two shorter sides.” I drew a quadrilateral with 2 long sides and 2 short sides that did not like a rectangle.

Another student said: “The sides are parallel.” I drew a parallelogram.

The student said: “No! That is not what I mean. Let me show you what I mean.” He drew a correct rectangle.

One student said: “A rectangle has four right angles and 2 longer sides and 2 shorter sides. Like this.” He drew a correct rectangle.

We had a nice discussion and came to the conclusion that a rectangle is: A straight-sided closed figure with four right angles. I also emphasized the meaning of the word “rectangle.”  It is made up of two words “recta” and “angle.” The word “recta” means right.  Therefore, a rectangle has only right angles. With this discussion and the precise definition, they were able to accept and see the face of the object I was showing as a rectangle.

This episode, in one form or the other, is repeated in many classes, from urban to rural classrooms, in many elementary schools. The same misconception is present even in many classrooms in many middle and high schools students. This is an example of lack of precision in teaching and, therefore, lack of precision in student understanding and expression.

There are many examples of such misconceptions. For instance, children often misunderstand the meaning of the equal sign. The equal sign means is “the same as,” “equal in value” “equal in some specified characteristic—length, area, quantity, volume, or weight,” but most primary students believe the equal sign tells you that the answer is coming up to the right of the equal sign. When children only see examples of number sentences with an operation to the left side of the equal sign and the answer on the right, this misconception is formed and generalized. Teachers should, therefore, emphasize the true meaning of the equal sign. From the very beginning—Kindergarten children should be shown that the equal sign “=” is a two-way implication. For example, Kindergarteners should be shown and know the simple facts as: 2 + 8 = 10, 8 + 2 = 10 & 10 = 2 + 8, 8 + 2 = 10 and first graders need to see equations written in multiple ways, for example 5 + 7 = 12, 7 + 5 = 12, 12 = 5 + 7, 12 = 7 + 5, and 5 + 7 = 2 + 10, 5 + 7 = ☐+10, ☐ + 2 = 9 + ☐. Although most above average and many average children are able to realize this level of understanding of the concept of equal or equal sign, there are many average and children with learning disabilities who have difficulty in reaching that level of understanding. This level of precision in understanding can be achieved by using Cuisenaire rods, the Invicta math balance for teaching arithmetic facts, and proper and appropriate language usage and questioning by teachers.

If students are taught using imprecise language, they will necessarily learn imprecise language and concepts, because language is the basis of mathematics learning. Later, they will not only resist when asked to use precise language in mathematics, but they will also have difficulty applying the concepts. A sequence of ideas begins to take place in students’ mind when we ask questions and emphasize language.
Questions instigate language.
Language instigates models.
Models instigate thinking.
Thinking instigates understanding.
Understanding produces conceptual schemas.
Conceptual schemas produce competent performance.
Competent performance produces long lasting self-esteem.
Self-esteem produces willingness to inquire and learn.

With proper language and conceptual models a great deal can be achieved. It is not too late to instill precision even at the high school level; however, if it is not emphasized at the elementary and middle school levels, it is much more difficult to do so. This does not mean we give up; it only means we redouble our effort and find better ways of doing it, such as using concrete models, patterns, and analogies when we are introducing new mathematics concepts and procedures.

As students progress into the higher grades, their ability to attend to precision will expand to be more explicit and complex if we constantly use proper language and symbols.

As students develop mathematical language, they learn to use algebraic notation to express what they already know and to translate among words, symbols, and diagrams. Possibly the most profound idea is giving names to objects. When we give numbers names, not just values, then we can talk about general cases and not just specific ones.

Correct use of mathematical terms, symbols, and conventions can always achieve mathematical precision but can also produce speech and writing that is opaque, especially to learners, often to teachers, and sometimes even to mathematicians. Good mathematical thinking, therefore, requires being correct, but with the right simplicity of language and lack of ambiguity to maintain both correctness and clarity for the intended audience. If we are particular about this in the first few grades, it becomes much easier to attend to precision in later grades.

Attend to Precision: The Foundation of Mathematical Thinking

One thought on “Attend to Precision: The Foundation of Mathematical Thinking

  1. Hello, Mahesh. I am thoroughly enjoying your blog, and hope to spend some time this summer digging into past entries. But here is a topic I struggle with, and I wonder if you have stumbled upon it. I find a problem that has arisen with the major commercial curriculums and also the standardized assessments (Smarter Balanced, PARCC), is their attempt to assess students on the standards for mathematical practice (SMPs). It seems to me that the SMPs are intended as learning opportunities and guidelines for mathematical learning. They are essential, the very best part of the CCSSM, in my opinion, but problematic when they are independently assessed in Everyday Math, Envision, etc., and on standardized assessments. In other words, a task item is given a score for content AND a score for SMPs, and other problems are designed just to assess SMPs alone. This, I fear, is where the critics of the CCSSM get their ammunition for the weird “common core math problems” and “common core tests” they love to criticize. Should not the the commercial curriculums and assessments be discouraged from trying to assess the SMPs, with the understanding that the SMPs are inherent in the learning process and lead to better mastery of the content standards? Can’t we infer that if a student solves a problem or group of problems correctly that she has had opportunities to, in fact, attended to precision and critique the reasoning of others, etc, in her work and mathematical training?



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