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NYC Helpline: How To: Teach Math
Teaching Your Students to Use Manipulatives
Sarah Picard

When teaching an investigative math curriculum rich in word problems, it is important the children have access to all the manipulatives they will need to solve the problem. It can be difficult to predict what a child may decide to use to solve a problem, that’s why all the manipulatives in my classroom are available for students to use every day.

This doesn’t mean that I put all the manipulatives on the shelf and say, “Here you go! Use what ever you want, whenever you want!” I carefully introduce each manipulative on the first days of school, and the students and I talk about how we would use each manipulative. This may sound time consuming and unnecessary, but a week of setting expectations in the math workshop will pay off every day you teach for the rest of the year.

Your overall goals during that first week may include objectives about the tools and how to use them. Following is a list of some of my objectives:

  • Students will gather at the rug in their assigned rug spot when the workshop begins.

  • Students will transition from mini-lesson (at the rug) to independent work (out at tables and carpets) and back to the rug for the share.

  • Students will use the names of the math manipulatives (unifix cubes, pattern blocks, color tiles, geoblocks, etc.) in their conversations about the tools.

  • Students will get materials independently and return them to the shelves independently.

  • Students will try out each of the math tools and understand how they work (for example: unifix cubes come in different colors, and they snap together).

  • Students will begin to imagine the ways in which they will use the math tools to solve problems.

Here are some of the activities my students and I do during the first few days of school in the math center.

  • Name each tool and give students time to explore the tool independently. Ask students what they notice about each tool and how they could imagine using the tool.

  • Practice gathering and leaving the carpet area for independent work.

  • Label the baskets together with students and decide which shelf will house each basket.

  • Practice getting tools from the shelves and putting them away.


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