7 Ways to Improve Communication in the Math Classroom
Do your students need practice with communication skills in math? Sure my kiddos can answer a sheet filled with addition and subtraction questions with the best of them – no problem. However, when the word problems get thrown in, many students start getting stuck. Ask them to explain “How do you regroup?” or “When should you regroup?” …eish! These are skills they aren’t used to doing in math.
For a long time, math and language were two separate entities… but now students are required to apply language skills to explain their math thinking. Important? Definitely! Easy? Not at all! Throw in the kiddos who are math whizzes and say “It just is.” or “You just do.” when it comes to ‘How did you get your answer?’ and you can be tearing your hair out.
This communication focus is a huge push in our school now. So, I have come up with a few sanity savers I’d love to share with you!
1. Begin with Understanding the Topic
1. First thing first: Make sure students fully understand the concept you are asking them to explain. Before grading them on a communication topic, make sure they have had ample chance to test their theory and find examples of when it works and when it doesn’t. Help them see it by thinking aloud using manipulatives and modelling the type of words you want them to use or think may help them. This includes a variety of styles such as direct instruction, games, practice, use of manipulatives and class discussions. Communication in math can be harder, so make sure the foundations of a topic are there before your focus on grading their ability to explain a topic or strategy in depth.
2. Label Their Thinking
2. Label Student Thinking: Help students label their strategies. If they say “Well, I know 63 plus 27 is going to end in a 0 because 3+7=10.”, help them label that strategy. “Fantastic! I love that you are using those ten facts“. We do it in reading (chunking, sound it out, decoding, connections…), why don’t we do it in math? Help students label their thinking in ways they can understand. Help them be specific. Instead of saying “You take the number and you take away the other number then you get that number.”, teach them words like “minuend, subtrahend, and difference” so they can more clearly articulate their strategies and processes. Build anchor charts and word walls with them. Practice and model using math terminology in an explicit way. The more you model, the more they will begin to do it naturally. The picture above is from my “Problem Solving Perfection” set on TPT. It goes through problem-solving strategies in a very thorough way (modelled and practice questions, journals and a cute penguin summative craft). You can read more about my problem-solving tips in this blog post.
I also love these fun buntings! One for math terms and one for number talk strategies. I made them for my class, but I loved them so much I decided to finish the sets and polish them up for TPT. They are amazing to review or introduce a topic. A few lovely early finishers could make them for your math bulletin board. Cute class decor that kids can actually use for reference. *Muah!* A masterpiece!
3. Use Diagrams, Pictures, and Charts
3. That being said, don’t rely too heavily on words. Allow pictures, symbols, charts and diagrams. Many of your students that thrive in math may not want to write you a neat sentence. That doesn’t mean they don’t get an “A” in math! As long as they can make their thinking visible to you and others, let those stick people, number line hops and charts do the talking. Communication is NOT just written work! Some kiddos may need help planning their work or diagrams. Offer a structure for those that need it using graphic organizers or lists. Don’t box kids in if they don’t want to use them, but offer them for those that like or need the structure and guidance.
4. Show Students Where To Look For Help
4. Where Can Students Find Help? Show your students what great math work looks like. Use proper terms. Show neat work. Think out loud as you make examples. I love using a board space to keep sample problems for each unit. We always do a class example for a new topic and post it for reference. I also post a photo for parents to view so they can help with home connections. Take photos of amazing math work and post it in the “Math Master Hall of Fame” (Kids LOVE seeing their picture up in the room!!). Make sure your students know where to look for anchor charts, examples, and help. Whether it’s a formal bulletin board, a chunk of a whiteboard or a page in their notebook, set up these structures to help your young learners see examples of success.
5. Practice, Practice, Practice!
5. Practice! Practice! Practice! There are many ways to help students practice their communication skills in math. Journals, charts, math talks and buddy work are all great ways to practice. This Article by the LNS has a fantastic article about math communication and how to start collaborative practices such as math congress, Bansho and more! It allows students to understand many ways of solving a problem and hear the way other students describe their strategies. They can ask questions, agree and disagree with the presenting students…amazing!
My math lessons include at least 3 math journals for each topic. They’re great for extra practice and communication skills! These are available in Digital (Slides) or Print (PDF)
6. Provide Oral Opportunities
6. Oral opportunities are VITAL in the primary classroom. Many students struggle with getting their ideas down on paper, but can tell you all about it with their voice and some blocks or other manipulatives. The importance of oral evaluation is crucial – especially to struggling students or ELL learners. Allow students to sit with you, use manipulatives and engage in a math conversation with you, rather than a paper and pencil communication task. You may be blown away at how much knowledge some of these students have that doesn’t show up on a worksheet! Keep a checklist handy so you still have that ‘evidence’ for parents, admin and your own records. This aspect alone has made a huge impact on my teaching and assessment practices. If your students are nervous about sharing aloud, spend some more time building their resiliency and growth mindset.
7. Include Non-Routine Problems
7. Include non-routine problems: Students need a chance to explore a variety of problems. I love posting an “Extension” question on the whiteboard and inviting students to come up and add their solutions using sticky notes or whiteboard markers. We see how many different strategies we can use and discuss their similarities and differences. It is good for them to see different wording or questions that have (gasp!) more than one correct answer. Don’t be afraid to look outside the sheet.
Don’t be overwhelmed! Pick one thing to focus on first and try that! Maybe you will try some oral observations for this unit, or set up a chunk of your bulletin board for math materials. Keep it manageable! You are probably already doing most of this anyways without even noticing it! Now that it is on your mind, you will notice the parts of your day where you do this naturally! When you see students doing it, point it out! Pump it up! You’ve got this!
If you need a little help, I have a few items in my store you might like!