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NYC Helpline: How To: Teach Math

Teaching Our Youngest Mathematicians to Think About Their Thinking
Sarah Picard

An important part of teaching math to children in the early grades is teaching them to see themselves as mathematicians. As they grow, they begin to understand not only new math concepts, but also how they, as unique problem solvers, approach these mathematical concepts. Following is some practical advice for teaching young students to think about their own thinking and to self-assess the ways they solve problems.

Math Interviews
Many teachers interview their students a few times each year for two purposes: for the teachers to better understand the student and for the students to better understand the teacher. In the very early grades teachers may ask students to draw a picture of how she feels during math time. When you interview a student you may also ask him or her to write about the ways he or she solves problems, the kind of math problems the student likes to work on, kids in the class that student likes to work with during math time, etc.


Name: ______________________________________ Date: __________________

This is a picture of me during math workshop:

And here's a survey for your young mathematicians:


Name: ________________________________ Date: _______________________

What do you like about math workshop?

What can you do to help other kids during math workshop?

What math tools do you use when you solve problems?

What strategies do you usually use?

What is the hardest part of math workshop?

Conferring with Students
As students are solving problems during math workshop, the teacher often sits beside children coaching them to use strategies. In order to teach our youngest students to think about their thinking, we can ask questions like the following:

  • What strategies are you using?
  • What tools are you using?
  • What is hard about this problem?

Some students need the teacher to define the tools or strategies they are using. As teachers confer, it is also important that they compliment the students with specific language. A good compliment is one that names the strategy and tool the student is using. For example:

“I like the way you are reading the word problem over and over to understand what you need to do.”

“I like the way you are using the 100 chart to count up as you solve this problem.”

“I like the way you are using the color tiles to calculate the area of this rectangle.”

The more a teacher compliments, using the language of mathematicians, the more the students will take on this language as their own, speaking and listening to the ways they, and their classmates, solve problems.


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