One of My Absolute Favorite Math Differentiation Strategies

I wanted to share one of my absolute favorite math differentiation strategies.

It ensures differentiation with no “extra” work.
It allows an entry point for all students.
It includes extension — again without any “extra” work on your part!
And it works for most any topic and most any grade level. Interested yet?
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Flip your story problem around to create an open-ended task! It is one of the absolute easiest math differentiation strategies to implement- and it’s so effective!

Start With a “Typical” Story Problem

The best way to describe this process is to start with an example. A typical first-grade word problem might say 8 ducks were sitting on the pond. 3 more came to join them! How many ducks are on the pond in all? 
This task is NOT yet open-ended. There is only one answer. 8 + 3 = 11 ducks in all. To make the problem open-ended we need to take another piece of information out of the story.

Eliminate Information From the Problem

In our original problem, students are given the start (8 ducks) the change (3 ducks) and they are then left to calculate the total (11 ducks). In order to make this problem open-ended, we need to eliminate 2 pieces of information so that there is not enough information to solve the problem.
We then ask our students: What are some possible answers that would solve this problem? 
Let’s go back to our original task. We could make this task open-ended by asking any of the following:
  • 8 ducks are sitting on the pond. Some more come to join them! How many ducks could be sitting on the pond now?
  • Some ducks are sitting on the pond. 3 more come to join them! How many ducks could be sitting on the pond now?
  • Some ducks were sitting on a pond. Some more came to join them. Now there are 11 ducks on the pond. What different combinations of ducks can you find that started and joined in at the pond?

Support Your Students! 

After you provide the task, make sure that your students are clear on the context at hand. You could ask your students to act the scenario out as a skit, to use manipulatives to model what happened in the story or to draw a picture that roughly matches the scenario. As with many math intervention strategies, the strategy itself is only as powerful as the scaffolds and support you put into place.

Ask More Questions! 

After your students have found a solution to the open-ended problem, push them to continue their exploration!

How do you know your answer matches the story?
 Could you find another answer?
 Could you model your solution using a drawing? Manipulatives?
☑ How many other answers do you think there might be to this problem?
 Are there any solutions you know would definitely not solve the problem?


Let’s Look At Other Examples 

Partners of Ten (K) 
Lucky Leprechaun has a pot of 10 silver and gold coins. How many silver and gold coins might he have in his pot?
Comparison Word Problems (1st) 
Garrett has an older brother named Cole. Cole is 3 years older than Garrett. What ages could Garret and Colton be?
Addition to 100 (2nd) 
Mia is saving $100 to buy a new bike. She has some money in her bank but still has more to save! How much money might Mia have in the bank and left to save?
Equal Groups (3rd) 
Jackson has 20 pieces of candy left to hand out on Halloween. He isn’t sure if he should give one piece of candy to many kids or give a few pieces of candy to fewer kids. How many pieces of candy could he give to each kid? How many kids would he be able to give candy to?

Eager for More Math Differentiation Strategies?

Looking for other math differentiation strategies? Numberless word problems, this strategy for differentiation worksheets or this strategy for differentiating story problems may all fit the bill!

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