As a middle grades math teacher, you probably struggle daily with students who cannot grasp what you are teaching because they have still not mastered the basic skills that provide the foundation for the new material you are attempting to deliver.
Why does this happen? I have a few ideas. First, students are required to do too much in a single school year in math. The majority of pacing guides move far too fast for students who have an average and below average understanding of math concepts.
Secondly, there is not enough focus on math intervention starting in primary school. As you know, math spirals. Skills in the upper grades build off basic skills taught in elementary school. Students who do not have a solid understanding of 3rd grade math skills will struggle in 4th grade. That sets them up to struggle in 5th grade and by middle school – they feel as though they can hardly keep their head above water. Many school districts are letting kids slip through the math cracks without really understanding how it will impact them later on.
So, what do you do when you have a class full of students where some are on level and rocking it and some may not be ready for what you are teaching? You cannot take class time to review skills from previous years (and honestly, not all students in your class will need that) but you need to do something. You need to bring math intervention into your classroom frequently… at least 2-3 times per week. If you have a math intervention program set up in your school, great! But, that does’t mean that should be all the intervention your students receive.
How can you make math intervention work in your classroom? Here are 6 tips.
- Track student progress. Knowing what your students are struggling with is the first key to unlocking the intervention puzzle. Not all students will need intervention. Some students always will. Keeping detailed records of student scores will help you determine who needs what.
- Provide explicit and systematic instruction. Require students to explain their thought process, give them guided practice, feedback and frequent spiraling. When delivering content to the entire class you are speaking to all students. When providing intervention you are speaking only to those who didn’t get it the first time around. You know they have been exposed to the skill(s) already so they have some background information. Your instruction should focus on exactly what they are missing.
- Focus on BASIC skills. Yes word problems (see below) and multi-step problems are important but the basic skills are essential. A student will not be able to solve even simplest word problem if they don’t have a toolkit of basic skills to pull from. A student cannot be expected to solve multi-step equations if they cannot solve a single step equation… or know how to combine like terms. A student cannot be expected to add rational numbers if they cannot add fractions. See where I’m going with this? Sometimes you may need to spiral back…. all the way back to the basics.
- Provide intensive focus on solving word problems and evaluating mathematics situations in real world scenarios. This seems to go against the step above but hear me out. For many students, they feel as though they’ll “never use this” so they don’t see the value in trying to understand. Fortunately for teachers in the middle grades, most of what you teach WILL be used in the future in some way. You can deliver basic integer problems using a football field or checkbook – basic fraction skill using cooking… the more you make them see that they’ll need that skill at some point, the more likely they are to try. And let’s be honest, saying “this will be on the test” is really not a good way to get them hooked.
- Allow to work with visual representations / math manipulatives whenever possible. The digital world is amazing but many students still desperately need to put their hands on things when learning. Provide fraction tiles when possible, let them flip around shapes for transformations, build composite figures… the more they can “see” it the more they will hopefully be able to get it.
- Spend a small amount of each intervention session building basic fact fluency. Consider taking the last 3-5 minutes of each intervention session to spiral back to fact fluency. Depending on the grade you teach and the level of your students it could involve you firing off double digit addition problems. Maybe you can go through a quick list of integer facts. Show graphs and ask students to visually identify the slope. Even struggling Algebra students should get a dose of basic skills.
Do you have any tips to add to this list? Share them in the comments if so!
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