Differentiated Instruction

3 Skill-Building Activities for Upper Elementary Math

Teachers can use these fun strategies to ensure that students get more math practice before moving on to new concepts.

June 7, 2024
FatCamera / iStock

You’re watching your students’ math progress and know you need to slow down the pace to build in a day of practice and feedback. They’re not quite ready to move on to a new concept, and you need opportunities to observe and listen to students closely in order to plan your next instructional move. 

With this goal in mind, the routines below can serve as tools to keep in your teacher toolbox to pull out when you’re looking for differentiated opportunities that let students work collaboratively, get loads of feedback, and find a bit of joy as growing mathematicians. 

1. Level-Up 

When do I use this? Use this structure when you’ve introduced a concept, and it’s time for students to practice the concept at differentiated paces and complexity levels. Consider using vertical whiteboards, and have students divide the whiteboards in half as they work in partners so you can stand in the center of the classroom with a clear view of the collaboration, peer coaching, and self-paced problem-solving. 

How do I use it? Find five to 15 problems and put them in order of complexity; snagging problems from your main curricular resource is a great start for the first few levels. You might use Google Slides, placing two problems per slide and labeling the slides with their levels, as in this fourth-grade example. Print out the slides and place them in the front of the classroom. Pair students who work at a similar pace, and ask them to work through the problems on a level, coach each other, and work through disagreements until they agree on solutions, then raise their hands for feedback after each level. Partnerships will progress at their own pace through the levels while you move around the room to provide feedback, monitor understanding, ask questions, and push students forward.

The last level should always be a more open-ended challenge, labeled as such, motivating students to move through the levels and providing a low-floor, high-ceiling extension; Open Middle is a great resource to pull from for this final slide. You might consider posting a key, if you want to pull a small group or simply provide deeper feedback yourself as you circulate with a clipboard to take notes on the formative data you gather as you observe student explanations.

Why is this worth trying? This structure works because of the feedback provided within the peer-peer partnerships in addition to the feedback the teacher offers. Students feel a sense of ownership as they work at their own pace, coach their peers, receive consistent feedback, and feel the productivity of moving through the levels. As a teacher, you are free to differentiate your questions and feedback while the rest of your students are engaged in just-right problems with embedded support through the partnerships.

2. Heads Together Battleship

When do I use this? This strategy is great to use after teaching a unit when you need to review and provide an opportunity for peer feedback to solidify understanding. Many teachers choose to “Battleship” on a second day of review before a summative assessment, when students and the teacher have a clear idea of what concepts they need to zero in on for review and practice. However, this strategy could also be utilized mid-unit.

How do I use it? Ask students to number off by four and take out individual whiteboards, if available. Display a problem on the front board that you’ve determined much of the class needs to review, unpack the problem as necessary as a whole class, and provide ample time for individuals to problem-solve on their own. After a few minutes, invite students who are ready to go to corner one, two, three, or four. I've created a downloadable diagram that depicts the four corners strategy.

The first time you try this strategy, be sure to model and set clear expectations for what sharing strategies and coaching teammates looks and sounds like in the corner. Encourage students to ensure that all of the classmates in their corner are able to explain their thinking as they put their heads together and check each other’s work and understanding.

When students return to their seats, pick a student to share their thinking and choose coordinates on the “Battleship board” to reveal a (possible) hidden picture. You can make the Battleship board with Post-its and stickers or by using a digital tool and screenshot of silly animals below the squares. Be ready for much excitement when a hidden picture is revealed. 

Why is this worth trying? Students don’t tire of this review game due to the opportunity for peer collaboration, interdependence, and feedback; the safety of meeting with peers to talk through understanding; and the possibility of revealing a secret picture. As a teacher, you’re able to pick the problems you know your students need to practice, coach-in as they are working at their desks or at the corners, and garner formative data on what they are understanding as they share their thinking.

3. Find the Error

When do I use this? Use this strategy if your students are struggling to persevere through real-world problems or they have misconceptions you want to zero in on and unpack as a class. 

How do I use it? Take a few problems and solve them, but make an error that is similar to one your students commonly make. Below are a few structures to try out for this strategy. 

  • “Find the Mistakes” to open a lesson and ask them what they notice and wonder about the worked-out solution. 
  •  Set out three different “Find the Error” problems, and have students work with partners to describe the mistake and then solve the problem correctly. Students can work at their own pace as you circulate to provide feedback. Hold a discussion afterward as a whole class.
  • If students worked on a set of problems the previous day, or for homework, you might pass out a key with one or two mistakes and ask students to work in partners to “Find the Error” using their own work as a comparison. 

To add a little fun and humor, consider naming the problem-solver, maybe mentioning that a family member of yours tried to solve the problem, and the class needs to help them find their mistake. 

Why is this worth trying? Students feel safe and curious when they’re looking for others’ errors. When we take time for error analysis, we’re asking our students to move beyond procedure focus and move toward big-picture conceptual thinking. When we ask what students notice and wonder about an error, we show that mistakes are clearly valued as opportunities to learn. Pausing to unpack mistakes and think through misconceptions with our students creates neural connections and changes the brain.

As you consider what your students need and respond to best, you can adjust these routines with endless variations. When you use these routines with students, taking the time to teach them explicitly, the hope is that you’ll save time later in the year as you repeat the structure threaded with engagement, collaboration, feedback, and a hint of joy.

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Filed Under

  • Differentiated Instruction
  • Game-Based Learning
  • Math
  • 3-5 Upper Elementary

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