George Lucas Educational Foundation

How to Differentiate Math Instruction?

How to Differentiate Math Instruction?

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Hello Edutopia Community,

I am developing my knowledge of best practices for differentiation in elementary education. However, I have not discovered much research-based information regarding this topic. What type of differentiation is best for math instruction: product, process, or content? What are suggestions or strategies that help students of different abilities? For instance, what if a few students are in need of addtitional support, but the majority of the class is ready to move forward, how might I differentiate whole-class instruction in this circumstance?

I am soon receiving my Elementary Education licensure and want to learn from others' experiences!

Thank you for your time and thoughts!


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John S. Thomas's picture
John S. Thomas
First & Second Grade Teacher/Adjunct Faculty Antioch University New England, former Elementary Principal

I try to differentiate within each lesson as much as I can by having extension activities for students who quickly fully understand the material and support materials ready to differentiate for those who are not picking up on the skill. I provide these extra supports during independent work time. In addition, my school has Response To Intervention time (RTI) to address different abilities. We call it WIN (What I need) time with our students. We use the 3-tiered system to get students what they need to be successful. It depends on the year, but this year I have about 15 minutes each day before math time to use for RTI. I have a handful of students who get intensive support including pre-teaching skills for the upcoming lesson or going back over past skills to reinforce the previous lessons. Then I have some students who I occasionally identify through assessments that need additional support so they are brought into smaller groups to receive appropriate reinforcement. Then the remaining students are ready for additional challenges above and beyond what we are doing on grade level. That being said, I have found many of these more advanced math learners have difficulty putting what they are doing into words (verbal and written). So I will often challenge them to write or speak about the learning taking place and provide them supports as necessary.

Margaret Shafer's picture
Margaret Shafer
Third grade teacher in the Midwest

I agree with all that John said.

In addition, when I taught first grade, I created separate challenge math journal activites for a few high kids who worked with a parent volunteer once a week. The rest of the class worked with me. While some kids were ready to use pictures or computation to solve problems, others still needed concrete manipulatives to solve problems.

At third grade most of my students are at or above grade level. Although I sometimes offer challenge activities for a few, most of the time, the rigor expected at third grade is challenging enough for almost all. Those that need assistance usually benefit most from scaffolded assistance or continued use of manipulatives or diagrams after most kids have moved on to computation or mental math solutions.

Guest's picture

I use math apps and sites to provide extensions or more practice in a different format while I work with small groups. Most of the apps provide me with learning results so I can see the struggles or the growth. I highly recommend Greg Tang's Math site, no feedback is provided but the activities are very engaging and align with curriculum. Khan Academy is another I have used when I taught second and third graders.

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