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Six Math Strategies for Boosting Understanding & Engagement

Unruly Math Pro
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Helping students develop strong number sense in earlier grades can lay the foundation for a better understanding of how numbers relate to each other in more complex math problems at higher grade levels. As teachers, it's important to have a toolbox of strategies that help students develop their number sense, grasp mathematical concepts, and develop their problem solving skills to promote flexibility for more challenging arithmetic.

Strategies that are engaging for students can help with this by making learning more hands-on and interactive. We recently caught up with third grade teacher Emily Downard (Academy Adventures Midtown, AZ) and fifth grade math teacher Elijah Ortiz (Concourse Village Elementary, NY) to hear some of their go-to strategies for making math more engaging and accessible for learners. 

Watch "Differentiate Elementary Math Instruction to Increase Engagement and Flexibility: Build Your Toolbox" to hear strategies from math educators.

Here are five of the highlighted approaches that you may consider incorporating into your own classroom:

1. Three-Act Tasks

This strategy, created by educator Dan Meyer, presents word problems in a more visual and dramatic way to pique students' curiosity. It involves three "acts" - the first is a short video or image to spark interest, the second provides additional context and information needed to solve the problem, and the third reveals the answer and potential strategies. By making word problems more story-like and interactive, Three-Act Tasks can get students invested from the start.

Check out these libraries of Three Act Tasks for elementary and middle school classrooms. 

2. Three Read Protocol 

To help break down the complexity of word problems, this protocol has students read the problem text three times through different lenses. The first read treats it like a story without numbers to build comprehension. The second involves a choral read with the quantities, and the third includes the actual question being posed. This systematic approach builds reading skills, vocabulary, and conceptual understanding before tackling the mathematical solution.

Learn more about how to use the Three Read Protocol here

3. The CRA Framework

The Concrete-Representational-Abstract (CRA) framework guides students through progressively more abstract representations of a math concept. It starts with physical, concrete manipulatives, then transitions to drawn representations, before finally using only numbers and symbols. Following this intentional progression from tangible to abstract can solidify understanding, even for older students learning new skills like volume or fractions.

4. Tape Diagrams

These visual models can help students conceptualize the relationships and equations within a complex word problem. By segmenting a problem into labeled "tapes," students can visualize which values need to be added, subtracted, or otherwise calculated. Tape diagrams can make overwhelming problem-solving scenarios feel more approachable and clear.

5. Vocabulary Building

Since math comprehension is so intertwined with language, teachers can prioritize vocabulary instruction within their math lessons. Techniques like showing videos on concepts without verbal explanation first, having students identify familiar/unfamiliar terms, and continually linking vocab words to visuals and examples throughout a unit can improve students' mathematical fluency.

Consider creating a math word wall in your classroom, math anchor charts, or allow students to create their own math vocabulary books. 

6. Gamifying Math

Gamifying math is a great way to get students engaged and excited about doing math. Incorporating relay races to solve multi-step word problems and playing games such as “I have, Who has” allow students to interact with math in a fun way and also promotes collaboration.

Physically active math programs like Unruly Math allow students to get out of their seat and collaborate with classmates to reinforce the skills they are learning. The playful nature of Unruly Math allows students to form positive math mindsets and reduce solitary screen time as well, keeping students engaged in their learning. 

By diversifying your teaching strategies, you can appeal to multiple learning styles and make mathematical thinking feel more accessible and interactive for all your students. Even small changes like those highlighted above can go a long way in boosting motivation and proficiency in math!

Check out the full webinar to learn more about these strategies!

Unruly Studios makers of Unruly Splats, programmable, stompable floor tiles that help kids learn fundamental coding skills through recess-style play. Best for elementary and middle school students from PE to science or coding class, a great addition to the classroom for active STEM coding and play!

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