Help! What You Need To Know If Your First Grader Can’t Do Addition

You’ve spent the first week of the school year settling in with your students and you’re ready to dive into your math curriculum. The first unit is a quick review of “counting-all” addition, and this time next week you will be knee-deep in “counting on”. Somehow it’s the first day of math instruction and you already feel like you are behind.

Sitting in your classroom is a super sweet little girl. So far this year she has shown that she is helpful and kind and she has many school ready behaviors. Unfortunately, she just handed in her first quick quiz of the year and you can not detect any rhyme or reason to the answers she has written. She clearly does not know how to add– how will she be ready for counting on next week?

Math Intervention is DIFFERENT From Initial Instruction

If you were a kindergarten teacher about to begin instruction around adding I would likely give you entirely different advice around how to teach this topic. With a first grader, we have a few considerations.
  1. We do not have an entire year to explore the idea of addition.
  2. Your student does not exist in a vacuum- they are exposed to what they see and hear from their classmates.
  3. We need to be acutely aware of the reason why the student doesn’t yet have an understanding of addition.
  4. Good instruction is STILL good instruction- think CRA.

Time Is NOT On Our Side

In kindergarten, students are able to spend extensive amounts of time composing and decomposing numbers. From there, teachers are able to connect the ideas of composing and decomposing to addition and subtraction. With a first grade student, your job is to take what your students know about composing and link it to the idea of addition ASAP.
I favor an activity that doesn’t involve numbers at all. I show my students pictures such as a scoop of ice cream, a cone, and a whole ice cream cone. I ask my students to tell me about how we can put two of these parts together to make a whole. We then put these pictures into a number bond and number sentence frame.
It is my job to help my students understand that the point of the + sign is to put parts together. Whereas in kindergarten you are spending time on the idea of parts being put together, the job of an interventionist in first grade is to link that understanding to the + sign as quickly as possible.

Because Our Students Don’t Exist In A Vacuum

In kindergarten, students are exploring with number bonds or tal


king about equations using “and” instead of the plus sign. In first grade, we do not have that luxury. Other students in the classroom along with grade-level lessons have exposed your students to the + sign. Instead of taking the time for students to explore the idea of addition without the + sign, introduce it early and be VERY clear about what the purpose of the sign is. The alternative is that your students develop their own assumptions and possible misconceptions around the sign and what it does.

But Don’t Forget To Look Back

Your student has a reason why they are in first grade without an understanding of addition. Find that reason and you will find the fastest path out of this predicament.
  1. Did your student lack exposure to addition concepts in kindergarten?
  2. Does your student understand addition but not recognize the symbols?
  3. Does your student know what addition is but lack a strategy to put number parts together?
  4. Does your student lack number sense or an understanding of the part-whole relationship?

Don’t Forget, Good Instruction is Good Instruction

Whether your students are in kindergarten or first grade, good instruction that meets students where they are and pushes them to link to the next bit of understanding will always be the right way to go. Don’t forget to think CRA. Start with hands-on, concrete materials. Allow your students to start with counters, linking cubes, red and yellow chips or any other concrete tool that will allow your students to physically experience addition. Push your students to link their understanding with concrete tools to representative drawings and numeric equations.
Your super sweet little girl is kind, helpful and has school-ready behaviors. If you are prepared to link her current understanding to the meaning of addition, give her clear instruction around the meaning of the + sign, and to start her instruction with concrete materials your student will also be a rockstar in math in no time at all.


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