How to Differentiate Math Instruction With One-on-One Conferences
Math teachers can use this strategy to make sure students get the individualized instruction they need to stay on track.
Inequities in resources and access to opportunities mean that educators need to deliberately bridge the gap between supporting students’ mastery of grade-level standards and supporting their command of foundational skills. This is particularly true in mathematics, where skills are interconnected and build on each other. Students with gaps or limited understanding of prior concepts experience difficulty in attending to grade-level skills in the present and future.
Individualized instruction is key to bridging that gap because it enables teachers to see most clearly what a student has mastered—and what they’re struggling with. No matter what the environment (remote or in person), differentiated instruction needs to be a priority.
One strategy that educators can draw on to differentiate instruction is one-on-one conferring, often seen in elementary school classrooms during reader’s workshop, a practice that supports flexibility, choice, student engagement, and shared responsibility. I’ve found that when educators I work with adapt the reader’s workshop conferring model to math classrooms, they find it a powerful way to examine their students’ work, elicit student thinking, and provide targeted instruction for each student.
Think of math conferences as conversations with individual students about their work—conversations in which both the student and the teacher explore what the student is doing well, and in which the teacher can share a tip or strategy that the student can use to improve their practice. While there is no golden rule for length of conferences, we’ve found that a meaningful conference ranges between five and seven minutes, and it’s helpful to think of each conference in three components: research, praise, and instruction.
In the first few minutes of a conference, the research component, ask your student to show you what they are working on, which could be independent practice that you have assigned, like a worksheet, or their math workshop notebook. This component is designed to be student directed, with little teacher talk. While the student is telling you about their work, you can analyze it, think of what the student does well, and decide what you are going to teach the student that will ultimately lift the level of their performance. Keep that last bit very specific and targeted, like demonstrating how to use a number line or add two-digit numbers, or make it universally applicable, such as “Check your work.”
Once you have determined what you want to teach the student, move on to the second component: compliments. Praise what the student does well; they will be more receptive to your constructive feedback if they are recognized for their strengths first.
Then introduce the third component: instruction. At this point, as the teacher, you are doing the bulk of the talking while the student listens. You might consider modeling the strategy you want to teach them with a prepared problem; or in the moment, you could leave them the artifact to use as a tool or scaffold for independent application.
During the instructional part of the conference, consider challenging your student or holding them accountable to trying the new strategy you’ve just modeled. You might offer them an additional problem on an extra piece of paper that they need to complete and hand in by the end of the class or the next time you meet, leaving you with invaluable formative assessment data to determine your next steps with the individual student.
Here’s how a math conference with a fourth grader might unfold, from research to praise to instruction:
Teacher: Can you show me what you are working on today?
Student: I am trying to solve the word problem.
Teacher: Tell me about it.
Student: I think I need to multiply.
Teacher: How do you know?
Student: It says that the bakery has five kinds of cupcakes and that they have four of each cupcake in the window.
Teacher: OK, why do you think you should multiply?
Student: We need to find out how many cupcakes in all are in the case, and there are equal numbers of each cupcake.
Teacher: OK… so how might you solve this problem?
Student: Maybe I can draw a picture, but I am not sure.
Teacher: Good idea. I really like how you worked to reread the problem to make sure you understood what it was asking you. You are the kind of mathematician that thinks carefully about how to solve problems. One thing I want to show you is that you can draw a picture or a model to solve this type of problem, and we do this by drawing an array. Watch me draw the array for this problem, and then I will give you another problem to try this with.
Tips for Success
One of the biggest hurdles we faced with implementing conferences in our math instruction was determining how frequently we should conference with students. Depending on your class size, conferring with each student daily is likely not possible, but we found that if you create a schedule, once or twice per week is often manageable. Furthermore, by utilizing lean language prompts (e.g., “Tell me more,” “Model this,” “Have you thought about a different way to solve the problem?”) and being purposeful about what you want to teach your students during a conference, you can likely hold multiple conferences with students in a given math period.
Educators may work in a variety of learning models such as remote instruction, in person, or hybrid. While it might come more naturally to have conferences in person, they are possible via Zoom or other teleconferencing; teachers can share the whiteboard feature of a platform or utilize a document camera to model strategies and have students send pictures of their work.
Record keeping is crucial to the success of conferencing. When teaching remotely, some teachers find it helpful to document each conference by recording audio and pairing the audio with pictures of student work as a digital conferring log. Others find a simple written log useful to record what they discussed with the student as well as take note of next steps.