Guided Math 101

Guided small-group reading has been around for a looong time. In fact, in most districts, it's a required part of the literacy block. And for good reason... Guided reading provides differentiation for students and lets the teacher keep close tabs on where each child is as a reader. It's become a best practice in the world of education. What I can't figure out is why guided math hasn't found the same level of discipleship.

Once a child learns letters and sounds and basic phonics skills, reading becomes more of a practice in a specific set of comprehension skills - word meaning, main idea, author's purpose, inferencing, cause and effect, and so forth. There's not much new in reading from third grade on except for text complexity. My third graders are learning about character traits in folktales right now while my high school daughter has been discussing character traits in Shakespeare. If I don't quite get main idea this year, I'll get it again next year and again and again and again.

Math is different. Math continues to build and change from year to year. Math in third grade looks NOTHING like math in high school. In fact, I cannot even begin to decipher one of my daughter's trigonometry problems. (It looks like gibberish to me - a third grade math teacher).

In math, if I miss something essential early on, I may find myself falling farther and father behind because that skill likely won't be explicitly taught again next year. Actually, it may never be taught again.

So why, when teaching essential math skills that can make or break future mathematical success, shouldn't we embrace guided instruction?

Yeah, I know... we teachers have enough on our plates. But planning for guided math isn't all that hard. You just need 3 things: a spot to meet with your groups, a rotation schedule, and some math centers. Let's talk about each of these...

1. A Spot to Meet - I would guess that the majority of teachers use their "reading table" to meet with small groups. Why can't it also be a "math table"? I don't even use a table at all. I meet with students on the rug in front of my big whiteboard easel. This gives us a place to spread out with manipulatives, math journals, individual whiteboards, or whatever else we need. I LOVE my whiteboard easel because I can use it to model strategies and the kids can use it to share their work. It looks like this:

Notice how the picture of my classroom shows the easel close to the ground? Yeah, that's right, my easel can be raised and lowered! Did I tell you that I love it? I use it every, single day, usually multiple times. Best $70 I ever spent (yay Amazon!)

2. A Rotation Schedule - This is actually the trickiest part of guided math groups. But it's no different than scheduling your reading groups. I can't tell you exactly how to do it because each class is unique. It will depend mainly on the number of students and how much time you have each day. However, one thing that should be the same across all classrooms: your groups should be fluid and based on your formative assessments and observations and you should meet with your low groups as much as possible. (Don't forget your high ones though! They need enrichment and can be pushed further than the curriculum goes.)

3. Math Centers - These won't look the same for everyone. Your grade level, standards, and student abilities will dictate your centers. One thing to remember though: Keep it simple! Math centers can quickly get out of hand if you give too many choices or constantly change them. I like to use the same 4 every week:

  • Technology (math websites and apps) - Scootpad, Frontrow, IXL, are all good choices if you don't know where to start.
  • Partner Work
  • Games
  • Task Cards
I also count "Meet With Teacher" as a rotation. 

Guided math takes a little bit of time to set up, just like reading groups do, but it's well worth it! Once I implemented it in my classroom, I saw a dramatic change in the amount of math learning that was happening and a positive change in the "mathitude" of my students. 

If you need some help setting up your centers and structuring your groups, you might like to check out my Math Workshop Starter Kit on TpT:

Math Workshop
If you do guided math in your classroom, please leave a comment below with your best tip. I can always use some new ones! Here's my #1 tip: Go to Home Depot or Lowes and get a piece of shower board cut into small rectangles (12x15 works well). They make perfect individual whiteboards that can be used during your math groups. Students will also use them at centers to work out problems. They are invaluable! For erasers, just cut up an old towel or use old socks. 

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