We’ve all experienced the feeling when a student is stuck on a math skill. Getting unstuck can be as simple as asking these 3 questions. They will guide you in terms of the most effective steps you can take to get moving forward again!
Question #1: Could My Student Demonstrate This Skill With a Math Tool?
The first question I ask if a student is stuck on a skill is whether or not they would be able to demonstrate their understanding of the concept if they were using a hands-on tool. Students can learn math concepts more readily if you use a C (Concrete), R (Representational), A (Abstract) progression. If your student is stuck on a math skill, it’s possible that they need to move “back” in this progression to more concrete models.
Within this model you can also ask “Could my student be successful with a different hands-on tool?” If you are using, for example, place value disks to add and subtract numbers with regrouping, you might move to a proportional model such as base ten blocks that is more supportive for your student.
Question #2: Could My Student Demonstrate This Skill with Other Numbers?
Sometimes the numbers are just too large for a student to conceptualize! Testing whether or not your student can demonstrate the skill with other numbers will give you some insight into whether or not your student stuck on a math skill itself or whether they have more work to do in terms of understanding place value and larger numbers.
- If your student is comparing 3-digit numbers, ask them to first demonstrate that they can compare a number with 2-digit numbers or even single-digit numbers. Is your student successful with these smaller numbers? Perhaps it’s a problem with their understanding of place value, not a problem with their understanding of comparisons! OR, if your student is not successful in comparing these smaller numbers, you will know that understanding comparison is the place you need to go next.
- Is your student making errors when subtracting numbers to the millions with regrouping? Move all the way back to subtracting 2-digit numbers with regrouping. If they are successful, slowly move up to 3, 4, 5, 6 and 7 digit numbers. Wherever your student starts to demonstrate difficulty, go back to question #1 above- could they demonstrate this skill with hands-on materials?
Question #3: Is There a Foundational Skill My Student is Missing?
If your student stuck on a math skill, it is likely that there is a foundational skill or understanding that they are missing that is holding them back. Breaking a skill down into smaller pieces and testing your students understanding of these foundational skills can help to determine why they might be having trouble with the larger skill.
- If your student is struggling to add using the make-a-ten strategy, look at the skills necessary to use this strategy.
- Is your student able to add single-digit numbers together?
- Is your student able to decompose numbers to 10?
- Does your students know their partners of ten fluently?
- Does your student understand the part-whole relationship?
- If the answer to any of these questions is “no” they will likely struggle with this strategy!
- If your student is struggling to compare fractions, think about the foundational skills necessary to compare.
- Is your student able to describe what the numerator means in a fraction?
- Does your studetn know what happens to the size of a piece as a denominator changes?
- Is your student able to describe what the denominator means in a fraction?
- Does your student know what happens to the size of a piece as a denominator changes?
- Can your student state whether or not a fraction is more or less than 1/2 by reasoning about size?
- Does your students know the meaning of the < and > signs?
- If the answer to any of these questions is “no” they will likely stay stuck on a math skill!
Planning Units To Avoid Getting Stuck on a Math Skill
When you are planning a math intervention unit keeping these questions in mind can help you to develop a lesson sequence that will get in front of these questions so that your students are less likely to get stuck in the first place!
- Be sure you are planning *the right* unit. Begin with question #3 to determine whether or not your students are ready for the instruction you are about to introduce. Are there foundational skills or understandings your students need to have in place *before* you start instruction? If so, plan that unit instead!
- Think about the numbers! Before beginning to plan your unit evaluate if the numbers you are about to use in your instruction are numbers your students will be comfortable working with. If not, you have two choices– move ahead with the unit using smaller numbers or teach a place value unit instead! You will see in my 2nd Grade Math Intervention Units that this thinking is embedded into the order of units! Unit 2 is a review of 1st grade place value of 2-digit numbers. Unit 3 then moves into 3-digit numbers which is aligned with 2nd grade math standards. After the groundwork of place value understanding is laid, Unit 4 is then accessible for students as they compare 3-digit numbers.
- Start your instruction with concrete, hands-on materials. This is the most supportive model for your students to build their understanding. You can always plan to move away from those materials in the future!