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Monday, May 8, 2017

Speaking Math, part 2: Improving math performance in 4th grade by focusing on language

Recently I partnered with a 4th grade teacher to co-plan & co-teach a fractions unit. The purpose of this partnership was two-fold: I would get some much needed classroom time to experiment with teaching strategies to support our students performing below grade level, and she'd have another teacher in the room to work with groups of students while she worked on implementing a couple of new instructional models that she wanted to get up and running.

Our work together was framed by 3 major goals:
  • Improving language support in math & language acquisition for students
  • Develop strategies for differentiation (through the lens of UDL & by integrating blended learning models)
  • Improve confidence, grit, and independent problem solving skills in students
Language in mathematics has been a struggle for not just our English language learners, but for all of our learners. This year, I've worked with a handful of teachers on using explicit language instruction in math lessons to help improve math performance. 

Small group work
Has our work been successful? Well, in just 4 weeks, about 50% of 4th graders (many of whom were performing 2 grades or more below grade level) showed growth in the Numbers & Base Ten math strand (based on iReady data) and, as reported by the classroom teacher, students' language has improved immensely as they not only continue to use their math vocabulary more confidently during math time (including students who didn't used to participate in the past, but now feel safer to do so during Number Talks), but also in other content areas and situations, as they make connections related to the math language they've learned.

How'd we do it?

Instructional Practices Reimagined :
Started implementing number talks regularly as lesson opener--
  • This mental math activity is a natural opportunity for students to practice academic language as they're required to explain their thinking and defend their responses orally (Math Practice Standard 3)
  • We also wanted students to practice accountable talk & listening skills, so we started every number talk with a 2 minute review of sentence stems that students could choose to use when speaking, as well as sign language they could use to agree or disagree silently while others were sharing
  • Students needed to practice multiplication skills, so rather then assign more flashcards or fact practice websites, our number talks were around multiplication equations, with a focus on helping students develop stronger conceptual understanding, number sense (flexibility with numbers), and place value understanding
  • We also used this time to work with students on thinking creatively in math and determining strategies for solving problems
Living word wall
Language supports built into lessons daily--
  • During number talks and mini-lessons on new content, we embedded explicit instruction in key math vocabulary for the day. 
  • Each mini-lesson started with a review of the day's learning target, which included vocabulary analysis 
  • Our goal was to teach to multiple modalities, so vocabulary instruction included:
    • Visuals
    • Choral reading
    • Total Physical Response (TPR)
    • Hands-on, realia and/or modeling of definition
    • Sentence stems/frames & vocab card reviews
    • Word wall prominently displayed and referenced during number talks and lessons
Begin Implementation of Blended Instruction--
Flipped lessons
  • Teacher used EdPuzzle to flip instruction with interactive videos (shared to students via Google Classroom)
  • Reflex Math and Zearn were also thrown into the mix from time to time
  • Students were grouped into heterogenous groupings based on data from a unit pre-assessment (custom built around 2-3 essential standards using Illuminate)
    • Teacher worked through practice problems with small groups
    • Others worked independently on their flipped lesson and were encouraged to ask groupmates questions first to keep teacher table time uninterrupted
Multiple Means of Representation (UDL)--
  • Transfer of learning occurs when students are able to make connections among and between concepts; stronger connections are made when multiple representations are presented or accessed
  • Content was regularly presented in visual, auditory and kinesthetic formats
  • Seesaw was also implemented as a tool for: 
    • Allowing students to share their thinking in a variety of formats (text, video, audio, drawing, etc.)... and as a way for the teacher to collect daily formative assessment data that could be quickly analyzed and used to guide planning of the next day's lesson
    • Giving more timid students, or those unsure of their language skills, a safe place to share their thinking instead of having to speak up in front of the whole class (when Seesaw was used during number talks in lieu of whole class discussion, student participation went from about 25% to 100%)

Outcomes & Successes

  • Number Talks & Fraction Talks
    • Students loved the number talks and looked forward to them each day
    • Often these number talks turned into teachable moments and mini-lessons, and served as a great form of formative assessment
    • LOVE hearing students use the accountable talk already
    • Students who don't normally participate in math & participating and excited
  • Hands-on math
  • Using fraction strips & vocab cards
    • Students performed better on math problems when given opportunities to touch, move, manipulate physical items (in our case, fraction strips)
  • Students are slowly becoming more confident problem solvers
    • We trained the students to use the lesson input charts, number talk posters and flipped lesson videos as resources when they get stuck during independent work time
    • They also use the word wall to help themselves read instructions that previously they would get stuck on
  • Seesaw
    • Students LOVE Seesaw & were motivated to participate in math when using the tool
    • Quiet students felt more comfortable sharing their ideas when recorded into Seesaw
    • Daily exit tickets were easy to manage and quickly assess when posted in Seesaw
  • Students' attitudes about math improved!
    • And as attitudes improved, perseverance improved
    • Comments overheard during our revamped unit:
      • "I love math!"
      • "I almost gave up on myself, but I didn't and then I figured it out!"
      • "That started out hard today, but then I got it and it was actually kind of easy!"

Next Steps

  • Differentiate Flipped Content
    • Now that students are used to the blended routine, it would be great to move from all students receiving the same content to pushing out differentiated content to the different level groups 
  • Integrate Collaborative Work and/or Hands-on Exploration into Blended Work
    • In order to train students on the blended model, and to ensure that teacher table time was uninterrupted, students mainly worked quietly on digital tasks during this first iteration of blended instruction
    • Important next steps would be to integrate opportunities for math talk and hands-on learning into collaborative/independent work time away from teacher table
  • Build in Student Choice
    • Student choice is one of the three principles of Universal Design for Learning (UDL) and refers to the practice of giving students choice in how they express their learning; students get to "show what they know" in a way that's most comfortable for them
    • Guided choice (in the form of choice menus or similar) can be used in the beginning to help students figure out what format they are most comfortable using

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